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Finance Lease vs. Operating Lease: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on February 29, 2024
Finance lease is a lease agreement where the lessee assumes ownership risks and benefits, often leading to asset ownership. Operating lease s a rental agreement for a shorter term than the asset's life, without transfer of ownership risks and benefits.

Key Differences

A finance lease is a type of lease agreement where the lessee effectively assumes many of the risks and benefits of ownership. The lessee is typically responsible for maintenance, taxes, and insurance. An operating lease, by contrast, is more like a rental agreement where the lessee uses the asset but does not take on the risks and benefits of ownership. The lessor remains responsible for maintenance and other ownership duties in an operating lease.
In a finance lease, the lease term usually covers a significant portion of the asset's useful life, and the present value of lease payments typically reflects the full value of the asset. This often leads to the lessee eventually owning the asset. In an operating lease, the lease term is shorter, often much less than the asset's useful life, and does not result in ownership.
Finance leases are often used for high-value assets and are recorded on the lessee’s balance sheet as an asset and a corresponding liability. This reflects the lessee’s interest in the asset. Operating leases, conversely, do not usually appear on the lessee's balance sheet under most accounting standards; payments are recorded as an expense over the lease term.
The structure of a finance lease means that the lessee bears the risk of obsolescence, whereas in an operating lease, this risk remains with the lessor. This makes operating leases attractive for assets that quickly become outdated, like technology or vehicles.
From a financial perspective, finance leases are more akin to purchasing an asset on credit, whereas operating leases are akin to renting. Finance leases can impact a company's debt-to-equity ratio and other financial metrics, while operating leases typically have less impact on a company's balance sheet.

Comparison Chart

Ownership Risk

Lessee assumes ownership risks and benefits
Lessor retains ownership risks and benefits

Lease Term

Covers a significant portion of the asset’s life
Shorter term, less than the asset’s life

Balance Sheet

Recorded as an asset and liability
Not typically recorded on balance sheet

End of Lease

Often results in ownership of the asset
Does not lead to ownership

Maintenance Responsibility

Generally the lessee’s responsibility
Remains with the lessor

Finance Lease and Operating Lease Definitions

Finance Lease

A lease agreement where lessee assumes ownership responsibilities.
Their finance lease for the machinery meant they were responsible for its maintenance.

Operating Lease

Lease where the lessor retains ownership responsibilities.
In the operating lease, the lessor was responsible for the vehicle's insurance.

Finance Lease

Lease where the lessee bears risks and benefits of asset ownership.
Under the finance lease, the company had to insure the vehicle.

Operating Lease

Short-term lease, less than the asset's useful life.
They had an operating lease for their office which they renewed annually.

Finance Lease

A lease recorded on the lessee’s balance sheet as an asset.
The finance lease for the equipment was reflected in the company’s financial statements.

Operating Lease

Not recorded as an asset on the lessee’s balance sheet.
Their operating lease for the laptops didn't appear on their balance sheet.

Finance Lease

Lease resembling a purchase agreement.
The finance lease allowed them to use the machinery as if they owned it.

Operating Lease

Lease akin to renting, without ownership implications.
The company preferred operating leases for its fleet to avoid depreciation costs.

Finance Lease

A long-term lease often leading to asset ownership.
Their finance lease on the office building spanned 20 years, with an option to buy.

Operating Lease

A rental agreement without transfer of ownership risks.
The company's operating lease for the copier included maintenance.


How are finance lease payments treated in accounting?

Payments are split into interest expense and principal repayment, impacting both the income statement and balance sheet.

What is a finance lease?

A finance lease is a long-term lease agreement where the lessee assumes most of the risks and rewards of ownership, but legal ownership remains with the lessor.

Are finance leases recorded on the balance sheet?

Yes, finance leases are recorded on the lessee’s balance sheet as an asset and a corresponding liability.

What happens at the end of a finance lease?

The lessee typically has the option to purchase the asset, extend the lease, or return the asset to the lessor.

How is a finance lease different from an operating lease?

In a finance lease, the lessee effectively controls the asset and records it on their balance sheet, whereas in an operating lease, the lessor retains control and it stays off the lessee's balance sheet.

Can finance lease obligations be canceled?

Generally not without penalty, as these leases are intended to be binding for the term of the lease.

Does a finance lease offer tax benefits?

It can provide tax benefits such as depreciation and interest expense deductions.

Is a finance lease suitable for short-term needs?

No, it's typically used for long-term leasing where the lessee wants to use the asset for most of its useful life.

What types of assets are commonly financed through finance leases?

High-value, long-life assets like vehicles, machinery, and equipment.

What are the key features of an operating lease?

Shorter term than the asset's life, no transfer of ownership, off-balance sheet financing, and lessee returns the asset after the lease term.

Is maintenance included in an operating lease?

Often, the lessor is responsible for maintenance, but terms can vary.

What is an operating lease?

An operating lease is a contract that allows for the use of an asset but doesn't convey rights similar to ownership.

How does an operating lease affect a company's liquidity ratios?

Since the asset and liability are off the balance sheet, it can lead to improved liquidity ratios.

How are operating lease payments treated in accounting?

Payments are considered operational expenses and are recorded on the income statement.

Can operating leases be canceled?

Yes, they are generally more flexible and can sometimes be canceled or modified under certain conditions.

Are there tax benefits to an operating lease?

Lease payments are often fully deductible as a business expense.

What happens at the end of an operating lease?

The asset is returned to the lessor, unless there's an option to extend the lease or purchase the asset.

What types of assets are typically leased under operating leases?

Assets with a longer useful life than the lease term, like airplanes, office equipment, and vehicles.

How is the interest rate determined for a finance lease?

It's typically determined by the lessor based on market rates and the lessee’s creditworthiness.

How does an operating lease impact a company’s financial statements?

It keeps the leased asset and associated liabilities off the balance sheet, affecting only the income statement through lease expenses.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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