I've seen you before. You're my neighbor. The guy who bought a house that was too big and toys that you never play with. But who could blame you? You owned a house! You were rich! Housing prices would forever climb!

Till, that is, they fell.

Now you're renting a two-bedroom apartment above the local taco joint. It's clean living, if rats and cockroaches are your idea of good company.

You'd live out of your car if Mercedes made a convertible with a backseat that fit anyone larger than an infant or Nicole Richie. But you can't get rid of it, either. You're stuck in a lease.

Come see the dopes
Welcome to the club, pal. Have a seat. Find your "I was too stupid to read the fine print and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" T-shirt in the back. Harsh? Sure. Fire back here if doing so will make you feel better.

Finished? Good, because you need to hear this. Leasing a car is almost guaranteed to cost you money. I'd explain why, but Foolish colleague John Rosevear already did that here. All I'll add is there's a very good reason that Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors (NYSE:GM), and Toyota (NYSE:TM) offer such big incentives to lease their cars.

Let's assume, then, that you're in a lease and you want out. What options do you have? Three, really:

1. Pay a massive early-termination fee. And I do mean massive. Here's how the Federal Reserve's consumer guide puts it: "The charge may be up to several thousand dollars and may exceed the amount you would have paid if you had completed the lease." Oh goody.

2. Find another sucker. Turns out there are services that will allow you to transfer your lease to someone else. But this isn't cheap, either. One service I found -- LeaseTrader.com -- can charge as much as $800.

3. Stick it out. Probably your best bet since you'll face no early termination fee. And, if you're careful, you can avoid both mileage and upkeep charges.

But don't tell that to LeaseTrader. An email I received from the company tells the tale of a Newport Beach, Calif., customer who (sniff) was having a hard time finding a mortgage because of the lease on his Mercedes.

You know what? Boo-freaking-hoo. If you're dumb enough to lease a Mercedes you can't afford, you're probably not ready to own a home.

Are you smarter than a carmaker?
Before you lease, it's worth understanding how car dealers make money. There are three ways:

  • By moving inventory.
  • By financing.
  • By selling parts and service.

Leasing is a financing service because no inventory has been sold. That's trouble for the carmaker. Everything that sits on the lot is a money-loser. So, when you lease a car, a dealer has to get more -- a lot more -- than it could cost to take it back. Still think you're getting a good deal?

The Foolish bottom line
Everyone runs into trouble from time to time. For those times, a service like LeaseTrader might be useful. But, before you use such a service, ask yourself: Why are you making the trade? Is it to be like Mr. Newport Beach and buy a house you can't afford?

Nah. You're too smart, and too Foolish, for that, right?

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Find Tim's portfolio here and his latest blog commentary here. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy gives credit without interest or late fees.