There’s a silver lining in every disaster, and that goes double for the 2009 new car market.

The Big Three automakers, General Motors (Stock Quote: GM), Ford (Stock Quote: F) and Chrysler, say that their January sales numbers are the lowest ever recorded. So all three, plus automakers in Europe and Asia, are offering some great deals on cars.

If you have a good credit score and can put 10% to 20% down, you can strike a deal that would make a Somalian pirate blush.

Should I Lease or Buy?
Times being tough, maybe you aren’t sure if you want to put your cash into some new wheels with long-term monthly loan payments. Perhaps you’d prefer to hedge your bets and opt for a lease. 

There is a good case to be made for both. If you own, then you face the immediate prospect of depreciation, i.e., how much your shiny new car goes down in value the minute you drive it off the lot. There is also the argument that leasing leaves you with no equity and nothing to show for all those payments.

When making a lease or buy decision, do not just look at financial comparisons, but think about your own personal priorities. What do you want and need in a car?

1. Have you crunched the numbers?
Not sure whether you want to commit to the car for a long term?  Break out the calculator. Use BankingMyWay's (Mainstreet's partner site) lease vs. buy calculator to crunch the numbers for you. If keeping your monthly payments down is most important to you, know that the short-term monthly cost of leasing is usually less than the cost of buying. (On average, monthly lease payments are 30% to 60% lower than loan payments for the same car, same down payment, etc.).  This holds true even when compared to 0% or low-interest loans. Plus, in an ownership arrangement, auto dealers will likely require more money down than with a lease deal.

2. How important is ownership to you?
When you buy a new car, you pay for everything, including its upfront value, plus finance charges, plus fees.  In return you get equity, which is essentially the car’s resale value, or what you can expect to get back if you sell it or trade it in.  And when you finish making payments, you’ll be free and clear. But is a long-term equity deal a good one? After all, the longer you own and drive a vehicle, the less equity you have. When you’re leasing, you’re only buying the time you will use the car, meaning the amount it will depreciate in the time that you drive it. That keeps monthly payments down, but leaves you with no equity at the end of your contract. 

3. What about repairs?
When you lease a car, you’re not really the owner. But when it comes to car maintenance and repairs, not being the owner can be a good thing. By and large, any type of repair will be covered under your manufacturer's warranty. (And your car’s always almost brand new, so the risk of something going really wrong is rather low.) Car owners, on the other hand, have a vested interest in car care and maintenance. That can include keeping on top of oil changes and brake pads replacements as well as keeping the body scratch- and dent-free.  Leasers as a rule find themselves less concerned with the details, since it’s not going to be their problem down the road.

Also, when leasing, be aware of additional fees (including security deposits and any lease-end charges) so they don’t take you by surprise. Expect to make your first monthly payment when you sign your contract.

When it comes to buying or leasing a car, there is no right answer.  Buying and leasing both have their pros and cons, so the key is to look hard at your own situation and preferences before you sign a contract.

- If you're ready to look into buying a car, search for Auto Loan rates in your area at