Buying or leasing a car should be fun and exciting, but in reality it’s a huge headache. What is a fair price? How do I negotiate a car lease? Am I going to get bamboozled? Just last month I underwent this daunting task myself and leased a new 2018 Mazda CX-5. I want to share the lessons I learned, so you can learn how to negotiate a car lease WITHOUT the stress and getting the best deal!
WARNING: After reading this post, you will become an expert in car lease negotiations so be prepared for many phone calls from friends and family to help them.
The good news is that after reading this you’ll understand:
- How a car lease works
- How to do the simple math for a car lease
- Where to find the information you need to negotiate a car lease like a rockstar, and
- How to negotiate a car lease to get the best deal possible
Is a Car Lease Right for You?
Before we begin, it’s important to realize that leasing a car isn’t right for everyone. In fact, leasing a car is going to be more expensive than buying a car over the long term.
Financially speaking, it makes the most sense to buy a slightly used car and drive it for 10+ years until it starts to need major repairs, then repeat the process. There are a ton of resources out there to help you decide whether you should lease or buy a car, but today we are just going to focus on leasing and how to make sure you get an AWESOME deal!
What Is a Car Lease Anyway?
A car or auto lease is a way to obtain a new (or sometimes used) car. The unique thing about a lease is that you only pay for the value of the car that you “use up” during the life of the lease. You will NOT be the legal owner of the car and a bank or lending company will hold the title.
While you just make a single payment every month, the monthly lease payment is comprised of two parts. The first is depreciation, which is the value of the car that you use up during the lease. The second component is the finance charge (also called rent charge), which is basically the interest rate charged by the bank for the lease.
Lease Term and Mileage
Most leases have a term of 36 months, but they usually vary in length between 24 and 60 months. Car leases also have a limit on the number of miles that you can drive over the life of the lease. The annual mileage allowance ranges from 10,000 to 15,000, which you'll get to decide. At the end of the lease term, you have a choice of either buying the car outright (for the residual value) or returning it and either leasing another car or buying a new or used car. Some car companies will even allow you to extend your lease for up to six months, but you’ll have to check with them as it varies.
When it comes to maintenance, you’ll want to confirm when you sign the lease whether routine maintenance is included or whether you’ll pay for that out of pocket. It varies by company. My lease included the first routine maintenance, but not the rest.
This article is thorough with lots of technical terms, but we try to explain them all in the simplest way so that you are well-informed when leasing your car. BUT…if you say STOP WITH ALL THIS MUMBO JUMBO AND NUMBERS, you can skip to the section titled “How to Approach the Lease Process”, where we have key points and a Car Lease Calculator for you to easily plug and chug to figure out the best deal for you.
The Car Lease Contract Terms and What They Mean
Alright, now that we have a good overview of what an automotive lease is, let’s jump into the details of the lease contract. It’s important to know what the terms mean, because it will help you secure the best deal possible. So here’s what you’ll need to know:
1. MSRP or Sticker price: The full retail price of the vehicle that is shown on the window sticker at the dealership. This won’t change.
2. Money Factor: The interest or financing rate for the lease. Usually expressed or quoted in 5 decimals (e.g. 0.00018). The more common annual (APR) interest rate can be determined by taking the money factor and multiplying it by 2,400.
For example, a money factor of 0.00018 would be equal to an annual interest rate of 0.43%. This is because 0.00018 x 2,400 = 0.43%. The money factor will be set by the car manufacturers or the banks. The lower the money factor, the better!
Note: A triple zero money factor (e.g. 0.00018) is excellent. A number like 0.00375 is awful!
3. Residual Value: The dollar amount the vehicle is expected to be worth at the end of a lease. Usually be quoted as a percentage (%) of the MSRP. For a 36 month lease, residuals will usually vary between 40% and 65%, and they vary by make and model.
For example, if a car has an MSRP of $23,000 with a 60% residual, the residual value will be $13,800. This is because $23,000 x 60% = $13,800. The residual % will be set by the car manufacturers or the banks. The higher the residual, the better! A higher residual will mean that you’ll ‘use up’ less of the value of the car during the lease so the depreciation component of the monthly payment will be lower!
4. Lease Term: The duration of the lease in months. Usually 36 or 48 months.
5. Negotiated Sale Price: The agreed upon value of the vehicle. While the MSRP or sticker price will never change, the negotiated sale price will change depending on how well you negotiate.
6. Gross Capitalized Cost: The agreed upon value of the car PLUS any items you’d pay over the term of the lease (fees, service contracts, taxes, etc.)
7. Capitalized Cost Reduction: The amount of any rebates, trade-in allowance, or cash you pay upfront that reduces the gross capitalized cost.
8. Adjusted Capitalized Cost: The Gross Capitalized Cost less any Capitalized Cost Reduction. Often just called the Adjusted Cap or Net Cap.
9. Rent Charge: What you’ll pay in interest charges based on the money factor (interest rate).
The Car Lease Math And Why It Matters
The math is going to be the backbone of your car lease negotiations. If you understand the numbers, you will walk into a dealership feeling confident and walk out feeling proud. We will guide you through the math.
It is much more simple than it seems. First, let’s see how the monthly lease payment is calculated! Remember that a lease payment consists of Depreciation and a Finance Charge.
Monthly Lease Payment = Monthly Depreciation Payment + Monthly Finance Charge
When we are all said and done, the lease payment formula looks like this:
Monthly Payment = ((Adj. Cap. Cost – Residual Value) / Lease Term) + ((Adj. Cap. Cost + Residual Value) x Money Factor)
To see how we got there, see the steps below.
1. Calculating Depreciation
To begin, we just have to remember that depreciation is the value of the car that is ‘used up’ over the life of the lease. This is simply the drop in value of the automobile over the life of the lease. Therefore, the depreciation amount is simply the beginning value of the lease (the adj. cap) minus the residual value. And then all we have to do is divide that amount by the lease term to see what the monthly depreciation cost would be!
Depreciation Amount = (Adj. Cap. – Residual Value)
Monthly Depreciation Payment = (Adj. Cap. – Residual Value) / Lease Term
2. Calculating the Finance Charge
The process of calculating the finance charge is also straightforward. At first, it may seem confusing that you have to add the adjusted capitalized cost to the residual value, but this is the reason that you multiple by a money factor rather than a normal APR interest rate. It takes into account the average monthly lease balance.
Fortunately, all you have to remember is the following!
Monthly Finance Charge = (Adj. Cap. + Residual Value) x Money Factor
3. The Monthly Lease Payment Formula
Putting it all together, we now understand the formula for a monthly lease payment!
Monthly Payment = ((Adj. Cap. – Residual Value) / Lease Term) + ((Adj. Cap. + Residual Value) x Money Factor)
Example Car Lease Math Calculations
Let’s go through a simple example together so that we can see how the formulas work in practice.
I am going to list out the different numbers for a sample car lease and then walk you through how to calculate the monthly payment.
- Lease Term: 36 months
- Annual Miles: 12,000
- MSRP: $25,000
- Negotiated Sale Price: $23,000
- Residual: 55%
- Money Factor: 0.00135
- Fees: $800
- Rebates: $100
- Down Payment: $50
Now we can use all of those assumptions in our monthly payment formula!
Monthly Payment = ((Adj. Cap. – Residual Value) / Lease Term) + ((Adj. Cap. + Residual Value) x Money Factor)
From the formula we can see that the only numbers we don’t have yet are the Adj. Cap. and the Residual Value, so let’s calculate those now.
Adjusted Cap. = Gross Cap. – Cap. Cost Reduction
Gross Cap. = Negotiated Sale Price + Fees
Gross Cap. = $23,000 + $800 = $23,800
Cap. Cost Reduction = Rebates + Down Payment
Cap. Cost Reduction = $100 + $50 = $150
Adjusted Cap. = $23,800 – $150 = $23,650
Residual Value = MSRP x Residual = $25,000 x 55% = $13,750
Now we can plug all of our numbers into our lease payment formula to get a monthly payment!
Monthly Lease Payment = ((Adj. Cap. – Residual Value) / Lease Term) + ((Adj. Cap. + Residual Value) x Money Factor)
= (($23,650 – $13,750) / 36 months) + (($23,650 + $13,750) x 0.00135)
= $275.00 + $50.49 = $325.49
How to Approach the Car Lease Process
Now that you are a lease math rockstar and understand how the numbers work better than many car sales representatives themselves, let’s go over how the lease process will actually work.
1. Decide What Kind of Vehicle to Lease.
You’ll need to think about your lifestyle and transportation needs. If you live in an urban area, are single, and only drive to work alone you probably don’t need a minivan. On the other hand, if you are a real estate broker with several kids and regularly need to haul large signs and clients to showings, you are probably looking for something with a little more room.
2. Begin Car Shopping Online
After you decide which ‘class’ of vehicle you need (Full-size SUV, Small Sedan, Sports Car, Crossover SUV, Minivan, etc.), you’ll begin the car shopping process online. You’ll spend time reading reviews to get a sense for what’s out there. Car and Driver is a great source for reviews of tons of different cars and trucks, but there are tons of different sites and sources (Youtube videos, etc.) with great information.
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a handful of candidates, you can go to the nearest dealership to test drive a couple of the front-runners to further inform your decision. Once you have the field narrowed down, it’s time to do the research that is really going to move the needle.
3. Get the Money Factor and Residual % for Your Target Vehicles
After looking at the lease payment formulas, we can see that a really high residual % is a key factor in lowering your monthly payment. The other key figure is finding a low money factor. Both of these components are set by the car makers. What I recommend is using a notebook or Google Sheet to keep track of the different vehicles and their stats. This will help you keep track of the important numbers so that they are easy to compare.
Often times, reviewing these stats will make your decision for you. In my case, one of the other vehicles I was also considering was a Honda CRV, but their money factor was 10x higher than the Mazda. On top of that, I quickly realized they were also selling close to MSRP. This meant that there was very little room to negotiate.
4. Determine the Inventory and Recent Selling Prices in Your Area
The next step will be to go online and use a few tools to determine what the inventory looks like in your area and what the latest selling prices have been. By now, you’ll start to get a really good sense of what fair prices look like and which car is the most appealing and sensible for your needs.
5. Use My Car Lease Calculator to Calculate Different Lease Options and Determine Preliminary Offer
Now that I know what I am looking for and what the current prices look like, I use my lease calculator to draw up what different deals look like and decide what I am willing to agree to. I make sure to keep a notebook handy so I remember exactly what the different scenarios look like. This will help you spot bogus offers immediately and know what is reasonable and what isn’t.
6. Time to Negotiate.
Where to Get the Information You Need
When it comes to negotiating anything, it is critical to realize that information equals power. The more informed and knowledgeable you are, the better deal you’ll be able to get. So before we sit down to play ball, let’s find all the information we’ll need!
Money Factor and Residual
If we need to know the money factor and residual, and both of those are set by the car companies, where are we supposed to find them?!
Edmunds has incredibly helpful forums dedicated to car leases. For my Mazda CX-5, all I had to do was find the appropriate forum and lo and behold, all of the information is there. From the screenshot below, I knew that the money factor I wanted was 0.00018 and the residual % was 59%! That was easy.
Pro tip: In general, a money factor with three zeros in it (a triple zero money factor) is great. For example, a Money Factor of 0.00018 is great, while a money factor of 0.00350 is not.
Current Selling Prices
In order to get the current selling prices, there are a few awesome places to check.
Edmunds True Market Value (TMV) is an awesome resource to check for recent selling prices.
According to the screenshot below, the price of the CX-5 with the configuration I was looking for was $32,520. It is important to realize that the prices you will see online will exclude taxes and other fees (only destination fee included)!
Wondering what a destination fee is? If you’ve noticed a semi-trailer truck on the highway with stacks of new cars on it, then you know what a destination fee is. It’s the charge for transporting your vehicle to the dealership from the factory.
I double-checked this data with TrueCar, which is another great place to see current market prices. From the screenshot below, it is clear that both are giving roughly the same figures.
For both of those sites, you should not submit your phone number or email unless you want all of the dealerships in the area to call and email you. I personally prefer to reach out to them myself.
Where To See Which Cars Are Currently Available For Sale / Lease
In order to see what the inventory looks like in your area, CarGurus is a great site. One thing that I like about the site is that it allows you to filter based on how long a car has been on the lot. If you see that a car has been on the lot for 75+ days, it’s a good indication that they might be willing to be more aggressive on pricing compared to a car that they can’t seem to keep in stock!
You can always go to dealerships in person and drive around the lot to see what they have, but I’ve found it easier to see that information on their sites. It saves me a trip and an encounter with a salesperson if I’m not ready to rumble just yet.
How to Negotiate the Car Lease
At this point, you know more about leases than 98% of the people you’ve met! You’re ready to negotiate. I’ll guide you through my negotiation so that you can see what worked well for me. I always remind people that negotiating is as much a game as it is an art form. Be patient and you’ll be rewarded. The purpose here is not to haggle, but rather to show you are making highly informed offers and are serious, so that the dealership knows you they’ll have to earn your business by giving you a fair price.
This should also go without saying, but always treat everyone at the dealership with respect and keep your cool, even if the discussions get heated. All of my negotiations were handled respectfully and even when we disagreed on price and I left the dealership, I always thanked them for their time and asked them to call me if they changed their mind. They knew I wasn’t BSing them because I was transparent about my sources of information, and they could tell I understood the math well. Life is too short to not have pleasant experiences with other people and this is no exception!
Timing is Key When You Negotiate
First, timing is CRITICAL! Regardless of how well you know the numbers and can negotiate, the best deals will happen in November/December (year end closeouts) and then May/June (when the dealerships are competing for business during high volume months).
You should do your negotiating at the END of the month. This is when car salespeople will be extremely hungry to sell cars since their end of month bonuses often depend on their monthly volume. I also prefer to go a few hours before the dealership closes so that there’s a hard limit on how long I can be there. After all, no one wants to work late or spend an entire day at a dealership.
Step 1: Determine the Price and Options You Desire
Before going into a dealership I wanted to have all of the information about the price of the car as possible. A quick look at Mazda’s site showed a lease offer on the car for $318 / month (pre-tax) with $2,000 down. Using my Car Lease Calculator, I was able to see that this implied a monthly payment of $374 and an Adjusted Cap of $32,900 excluding fees. With fees and registration included this would probably end up being closer to $385-$390 before taxes.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Edmunds True Market Value price of $32,520 on an MSRP of $33,990 represented a monthly payment of $356. Just based on that, I saved 5% straight out of the gate.
I figured I could negotiate a little better than average, so I wanted to begin negotiations at $31,800 (before fees and taxes). This implied a monthly payment of $337 or additional savings of a little over 5%! I wasn’t expecting to settle on $31,800 but I prefer to anchor the starting number lower.
In my experience, if they come out first and say “we can do the deal for $33,000”, getting them to come down $1,000 is a larger psychological hurdle for them than having you anchor at a low price and then have YOU concede and agree to a higher number.
Step 2: See Who Is Willing to Play
After doing all of my research, I emailed 6 dealerships in my area explaining exactly what I was looking for and the terms I was interested in. All of the dealerships responded but only three thought they could make the numbers work, while the other three called me crazy or offered me a another model.
You might have more or fewer dealerships in your area. I made sure they had the exact model I was looking for in stock before calling by checking their websites.
On the day I wanted to lease the car I called the 3 dealerships who responded favorably to my email and asked to speak with the sales manager. Two of the dealerships said the manager was busy and transferred me to the sales associate. Once I had the manager or salesperson on the phone, I reminded them which car I was interested in and conveyed that I was a motivated buyer ready to make a deal happen at the right price.
The initial calls started like this:
Me: “Hi, my name is Camilo, thank you for your time. I am calling today to follow up on my email from a couple of days ago. I see you still have a white 2018 CX-5 AWD on your lot. According to your site, it’s stock #MZ8473. As you know, I am interested in a 36 month, 12K mile lease. I understand that the current money factor on the lease is 0.00018 with a residual of 59%, is that right?”
Them: “Yes, that’s correct.”
Me: “Wonderful! I’d love to make this easy for both of us. If you’d be willing to draft up paperwork for a lease with $0 down and an Adjusted Cap of $31,800 I can come in today to sign and drive!”
Dealership 1: One of the sales associates seemed genuinely excited and said he’d call me back after reviewing with his manager. He finally got back to me when I was in another dealership negotiating.
Dealership 2: The sales associate said there’s no way he could get close to an Adjusted Cap of $32,300 and said he could only do it at $33,500 which was basically the MSRP. No, thank you! This interaction made me wonder whether it had been a robot that responded favorably to my email!
Dealership 3: I was able to speak with the assistant sales manager. He followed all of the numbers and after a brief hold (I think he went to run the numbers), he verbally agreed to that price if I went in that day. Having already negotiated the lease or purchase of a car 3 times in the past 6 years, I knew that the negotiation was only beginning!
Step 3: Make Your Offer and Lay out the Facts
One option is to conduct all of the negotiations (including the back and forth) completely over email or phone without setting a foot in the dealership until it’s time to sign the papers. I love this approach because of the speed, ease, and lack of awkward in person negotiations, but the reason I don’t do this is because I feel I can get better deals when I am there in person.
I do think negotiating everything over email will become more common, and probably the way to go.
Once I arrived at the Mazda dealership, the assistant sales manager had me meet with one of his sales associates. It quickly became apparent that the salesperson hadn’t been filled in on my earlier phone conversation with his boss.
When I went to ask the assistant manager about our phone conversation earlier, he pretended to have misheard the conversation (what about the email?!) and said “I thought you said a cap of $33,300!” Thankfully, his office was close to the front door so that I could exit quickly to not waste any more of my time.
Don't Give Up While You Are Negotiating Your Car Lease
When I got outside I realized I had a missed phone call from dealership #1. Their voicemail confirmed my offer price and that they’d love to work together. I headed over to dealership #1, and I confirmed my offer and the details of the vehicle I was looking to lease.
Naturally, they responded about how they wanted to get a deal done with me (especially since it was the last Saturday of the month), but they couldn’t get their price down to $31,800 because of the extra options I wanted (reverse parking sensors were an extra $500, etc.).
Having already reviewed the TrueCar and Edmunds prices, I had a good sense that the market average price for the exact car I wanted was close to $32,500 (see image below), so I knew we were close on price.
Step 4: Stay Calm and Stick to Your Price
After I told him I would go to a different dealer if they couldn’t come down to $31,974 and started to pack my computer (yes, I literally brought it and used it to run numbers during the negotiation), he started to realize I was serious.
To be clear, you cannot say you will walk out the door to another dealership unless you mean it and you are planning to do so. If they call your bluff you’ll have no credibility, and I can guarantee you that you won’t get the same deal. To show him where I got my information, I walked him through the TrueCar site and literally had him pull up the same information on his screen. Once he saw that some dealerships were doing deals in my ballpark I could tell he didn’t want to lose me.
In general, I have found that car sales associates trust these sites because they generate a lot of new leads for them.
At this point, he went to confer with the head of sales and came back with a best and final offer of $32,005, on the condition that I paid for the taxes, fees, and registration up front.
I didn’t want to pay anything upfront so this was painful, but I agreed to this deal because I felt like I had gotten a tremendous deal. I knew rolling the fees into the value of the lease would have been ideal, but he wasn’t budging and I didn’t want to wait another month to lease at a different dealership.
Should You Pay Anything Upfront?
No. In general, making upfront payments does not make sense. In some cases, lenders may require you to make a down-payment if you DON’T have excellent credit or don’t meet their income requirements.
Alternatively, the dealer might be running a promotion that you can only qualify for if you pay something down. However, you should always try to avoid paying anything up-front.
The reason you should avoid paying anything up front is because if the car gets totaled, any money you’ve already paid will probably be lost. Your insurance company will only pay the bank for the fair value of the car since they are the ones who legally own the car and hold the title. It is unlikely that the fair value of the car will be worth more than what you owe. More than likely, your insurance will pay off the car so that you are no longer on the hook for the lease, but you just lost that cash.
So What Did My Deal Look like in the End?
When everything was all said and done, the car had an MSRP of $34,115 and the negotiated sale price was $32,005 (6.18% below MSRP). The monthly payment before tax was $343, which comes in well below the lease offer on the Mazda site. My negotiated price even came in $515 below the Edmunds True Price of $32,520.
I excluded the fees and taxes from all figures so it’s easier to compare, since taxes will vary by state and city, and since the online prices from Edmunds and TrueCar do not include them, either. When you review deals in the Car Lease Calculator, you will always want to include EVERYTHING so you know exactly what your payment will be.
With all fees included, my total price came to: $32,800. Not bad for a fully-loaded model with all of the bells and whistles! For Mazda, you should assume there’s a $595 acquisition fee and another +/-$200 for license and registration (varies by state). There is also a dealership documentation fee, but this varies widely.
Should I Buy Any Options / Services Offered to Me Before Signing the Paperwork?
No. After you finally get through the tough job of negotiating your lease, the finance manager at the dealership will try to sell you maintenance and other packages and warranties. In general, you should not sign up for these as they are just money makers for the dealership. You can often get better pricing on those services by going to a private vendor on your own, if you desire.
If you decide you just want the convenience and are willing to pay for it, then some of the offers may appeal to you, but just know that in general, they aren’t the smartest move from a financial perspective. If you do want them, ask for a discount.
What Should I Have Done Differently?
I’ve never walked out of a car purchase or lease negotiation feeling like everything was 100% flawless. A negotiation is dynamic and there are a lot of moving pieces and things to consider. If you feel like you got the best deal in the entire world, you probably haven’t realized that you missed something.
If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. I created this guide to help you do YOUR best to get the best deal you can possibly get. If you follow this process, I am confident that you will!
That was a lot of detailed information, so I created this infographic showing the highlights!
Other Helpful Tips and Considerations
1. Check Your Local Laws as they May Help You
Some states have laws stating that you have 24 hours to review a lease contract before you have to sign it. This is great because it gives you incredible leverage if you take that contract to another dealership and see if they can beat it.
2. Don’t Trade Your Old Car into the Dealership
Don’t trade your current car in to a dealership if you want to maximize what you get in return. In general, you will be able to get more for your old car by selling it to a private buyer. It will require more work on your part, but the extra money can be worth it for most people! This applies whether you are leasing or buying a car.
3. Once Your Lease is Negotiated, Ask about Gap Insurance
This insurance will cover you in the event that your car is totaled and you owe more than the car is worth. In some states this is required and may already be included in the lease. You’ll have to ask to be sure. The reason you want GAP insurance is because if you owe the bank $20K but the car is only worth $15K, you’ll owe the difference. Your insurance company will only pay the bank what the value of the car is, not how much you owe for it.
4. Know Your Credit Score, and Understand Its Impact
Unless you are writing a check or paying for a car in full with cash, the dealership and the lender will run a credit check on you. This will have a temporary negative impact on your score. It is important to note that if you don’t have excellent credit (a credit score of 720-750+), you might not qualify for the best money factor offered. In fact, you might not even be approved for the car you desire if they deem that it’s too expensive for you. You can always have a cosigner, but this is a luxury many people don’t have.
5. Have a Copy of Your Existing Car Insurance or Know Who You’ll Have Insure You New Car
To speed the process up, it could be helpful to bring a copy of your existing car insurance. You probably have a copy in your car, so that should not be a problem. The salesperson will call your existing insurance company to add your new vehicle to the plan.
If you have never had auto insurance before, it is a good idea to shop around for insurance for your desired car so that you can get everything set up with a great rate immediately after agreeing on a price for your lease or purchase. You will NOT be able to drive away in a new car without having the car insured.
6. Bring your Computer and Car Lease Calculator to the Dealership
You can ignore this tip if you have a PhD in Quantum Field Theory. For the rest of us…
One thing that I found extremely helpful was having my computer with my Car Lease Calculator, because I was able to quickly evaluate any counter offers and see what the implied terms were. I always do this!
Salespeople often want to quote you a monthly payment rather than a cap number. I would always bring the conversation back to the cap number and could quickly get their implied cap number by using the car lease calculator. Having the numbers on your screen will also help you check the final contract to make sure everything makes sense and lines up with the previous discussions.
7. Check Whether You Can Make Refundable Security Deposits
Some automotive companies allow you to make Refundable Security Deposits (RSDs) also known as Multiple Security Deposits (MSDs), in order to lower the money factor. If you have the cash available, making these deposits can often be a no-brainer.
To see if making a refundable security deposits are worth it you'll want to compare 12 months of monthly payments with and without the deposits. You'll want to take the difference in annual payments and divide that number by the total $ value of deposits you made to see what your estimated annual return is on that money. Since this return is GUARANTEED, chances are that it'll be well worth doing.
I have seen deposits provide the equivalent of a 7% annual return, which is an amazing GUARANTEED return on your money. In this case, Mazda doesn’t offer a deposit program so I wasn’t able to do that.
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