PCP finance balloon payment: what is it and when do you have to pay it?

A large PCP balloon payment means low monthly payments, but also a big bill if you want to buy the car when the contract ends

BuyaCar team
Apr 23, 2020

PCP finance offers lower monthly payments than other types of car finance - such as Hire Purchase or traditional car loans - plus added flexibility at the end of the contract. PCP is available for new and used cars and splits the cost of a car across a deposit, a series of monthly payments and an optional final payment at the end of the contract - also known as a balloon payment. Make that final payment and the car is yours, choose not to and have to hand the keys back.

It's the existence of a large balloon payment at the end that makes monthly payments more affordable. That's because PCP monthly payments cover the difference between the car's initial price and its expected value at the end of the contract - signified by the balloon payment - rather than the full price. This differs from Hire Purchase, where the deposit and monthly payments cover the full cost of the car.

This means that PCP finance makes it easier to change cars more regularly than with Hire Purchase, as monthly payments are lower and you can simply hand one car back at the end of the contract and then finance a new one. However, if you don't understand how balloon payments work, you may find yourself out of pocket when the contract ends, not owning the car and without enough cash to make the balloon payment to buy it outright or lacking the cash to put down a deposit on another new car.

The balloon payment - which is typically referred to as the optional final payment - is a key part of every PCP agreement, and has a major impact on the cost of your monthly payments. The higher it is, the lower your monthly payments, though the more you'll have to pay if you want to buy the car at the end of the contract. Therefore, you'll need to be particularly aware of how much it is if you want to buy the car when the term ends.

What is a PCP balloon payment?

A PCP balloon payment is the final lump sum needed to take ownership of a car at the end of a PCP finance agreement. Most car finance paperwork refers to this as the optional final payment. Car costs are split across an initial deposit, a series of monthly payments and then this optional final payment that you must pay if you want to buy the car.

If you don't want to own the car, at this stage you can return the car with nothing left to pay - provided the car is in good condition and within the pre-agreeed mileage allowance. Read our story about what happens at the end of a PCP finance agreement to get to grips with your options.

The balloon payment is fixed at the beginning of the contract, so you should always know the cost of keeping the vehicle when you get to the end of the contract. Think seriously about this; if you do want to own the vehicle at the end, but don't think you'll be able to afford it, consider Hire Purchase instead.

As Hire Purchase doesn't feature a balloon payment, the monthly payments are higher, but there's no big bill at the end to take ownership of the car. As you're paying off the finance balance quicker with Hire Purchase, you'll end up paying less interest overall (provided the APR, deposit and contract length are the same).

The balloon payment is also known as your car's guaranteed minimum future value (GMFV). It's an estimate of the vehicle's value at the end of the finance agreement, and offers protection against an unexpected fall in your car's value: if the vehicle is worth less at the end of the agreement, then the lender will face the financial loss if you return it. As the optional final payment title suggests, this payment is optional. If you don't want to buy the car you can hand it back to the finance company and walk away.


How PCP finance balloon payments are calculated

At the start of any PCP finance agreement, your lender will estimate the value of the car at the end, using industry guides to help. The balloon payment is based upon this figure, though may be slightly less to protect the finance company should the value of the car drop faster than expected.

Your monthly payments are then calculated. They will add up to the difference between the price of the car at the start and the balloon payment at the end (minus any deposit and with interest added).

In other words, the monthly payments and deposit cover the value that the car is expected to lose over the term, and not the full price of the car. Cars that are highly desirable used are likely to have higher balloon payments, while less desirable cars are likely to have lower figures.

That's why cars that retain a high proportion of their value can be relatively cheap to finance in monthly payment terms; a £40,000 that is expected to be worth £20,000 at the end of the contract should cost the same per month as a £30,000 car that is expected to be worth £10,000 (assuming identical contract terms), as both are predicted to lose £20,000.

At the end of a PCP agreement, the remaining debt should be roughly equal to the car's value, so you can either hand the vehicle to the lender or make the balloon payment to settle the finance and buy the car.

In some cases the car may be worth more than the balloon payment. This is referred to as having equity. If the car loses more value than expected, however, you don't need to worry: you can still return it and the lender will take the financial hit.


Should I make the balloon payment?

If you want to keep the car, then you should consider making the balloon payment. This can be done by paying the lender in cash or by refinancing the payment, which could take the form of another PCP agreement (depending on the car's age) or a Hire Purchase arrangement, which will leave you as the car's owner at the end.

However, before making any payment, it's worthwhile getting your car valued by a car retailer or buying group. If it's worth less than the balloon payment, then you may be better off returning the vehicle and then buying a similar model on the second-hand market for less.

Be aware that if you take PCP on a car and decide to make the optional final payment to buy it that you will pay more in interest than if you took out a Hire Purchase finance scheme (assuming the same length of contract and deposit). That's because you pay off the finance balance faster with Hire Purchase than with PCP, meaning that less interest stacks up.

When your car is worth more than the balloon payment

If your car is worth more than the balloon payment at the end of the contract, then paying this could leave you better-off in the long run, even if you don't want to keep the car.

  • You might want to sell the car immediately, leaving you with a surplus amount. This is not profit, but some of your monthly payments that are being returned to you. 
  • Alternatively, you can part-exchange the car for another vehicle. The car retailer will make the balloon payment on your behalf - effectively buying the car for themselves - and the surplus can be put towards another vehicle.
  • It may be possible to sell the car at the end of a PCP arrangement, with the agreement of the lender. Most of the proceeds will go to the lender to settle the finance and you'll be able to keep any surplus.

Cars are often worth more than the balloon payment because lenders often set the balloon payment to be slightly less than what they expect the car to be worth, to reduce the chances of an unexpected drop in car values (depreciation), leaving them with vehicles that are worth less than expected - a loss for lenders.

It also means that you're effectively overpaying for the car because the monthly payments usually add up to more than the depreciation. If you do return the car, that money goes into the lender's pocket rather than yours.


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