Perhaps the most dreaded time for people whose cars and trucks are leased comes when it’s time to turn the vehicle back to the leasing company.

Even if the miles on the odometer show the driver is under or at the allowable mileage, there’s that gray area referred to in most lease agreements as “normal wear and tear.”

The problem arises when it comes to who’s deciding what’s normal.

While a few paint nicks from parking lot door encounters may seem like normal wear on a 4-year-old car, the leasing company could decide that the door needs repainting and bill the customer after the car is turned in.

A friend recently turned in a BMW after five years of leasing. She was told later that because the front tires were of a different brand than the rear tires, she owed more than $400 — despite the fact that all four tires had plenty of tread left.

To avoid surprises, you should know what to expect when the lease runs out.

When your lease has several months left, contact the leasing company and ask for their guidelines on what signs of usage are acceptable. Then, go over the car with a highly critical eye, noting the questionable areas.

Most finance companies hire a third party to inspect the leased vehicle and give the owner and the finance company a copy of what they found.

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Companies that do this — such as DataScan Field Services and AutoVIN — usually follow a set of instructions that include things such as looking for suspicious welds that may indicate repair of major structural damage.

Items such as ripped or seriously stained upholstery will usually result in extra charges, as will balding tires or visible scrapes in the paint. Inspectors will also check that the vehicle’s accessories still function as designed and that there have been no modifications.

That custom stereo you installed may sound great, but it could be considered a no-no by the leasing company and result in a charge to set the car back to original condition.

If you’re present when the car is inspected — and you should definitely try to be there — take pictures of areas the inspector says need attention.

Remember that one person’s chargeable ding may be another person’s reasonable wear.

If there are repairs needed, get several estimates — you may find that the leasing company can get items fixed at less cost.

If you disagree with the assessment of your car, consult your lease agreement about your rights regarding an appeal. You usually don’t have to accept the first judgment and many of these charges are negotiable.

Of course, the first line of defense is to treat your leased vehicle as if it belongs to someone else — because it does.

Here are this week’s reader questions:
Trouble may begin when car lease ends
Should I dump my car on the bank?
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How can I stop unjustified collection?

If you have a question for Terry, e-mail him at
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