How to Demystify Complicated Lease Clauses

Commercial real estate leases can be intimidating to anyone who does not read and deal with them on a daily basis.

To start, many are over 50 legal-sized pages long, contain 14 major parts, are full of unfamiliar terms such as waiver of subrogation and legalese; such as “Whereas the Party of the First Part…..”

So I am continually shocked when small business owners either don’t have anyone review the lease before signing it or don’t seek the advice of a commercial lease expert. This occurs in about half of all lease transactions involving small business owners according to my own informal survey from decades of leasing, lease administration and training people about lease negotiation, leasing and lease administration.

Even more shocking is that a failure by small business to rigorously negotiate the entire lease document can result in significant financial issues and increased business risk. I’ve seen businesses destroyed due to a poor lease. That is why we show occupiers how to negotiate their lease correctly.

Many small business owners also don’t realize that the lease is the ongoing, two-way contractual arrangement between the tenant and the landlord AND the landlord and the tenant, so they file away the lease after it is signed, never to look at it again. In part, this is because they may be intimidated by the wording.

So here is a tip to cut through the convoluted wording when reading the lease. But keep in mind that anyone unfamiliar with a commercial lease should ALWAYS have a commercial lease expert and their lawyer explain both the lease clauses – in detail – and the nuances of the wording.

STEP 1

Always get or make a duplicate copy of the fully signed lease. The original should be kept in a safe place. It is the ONLY version that should be referenced if an issue comes up, because it is the ‘legal’ copy. The second copy is the one that become a quick reference guide to the lease. You will make a condensed version of the original lease highlighting the key point in each clause, using the copy.

STEP 2

On the duplicate copy ONLY, highlight the main essence of each clause, so that when reading the clause the main point you need to refer to in the management of your lease on a daily basis is highlighted.

Here is an example from a retail property lease concerning the need to keep store sales information. Here is the original wording as contained in the lease:

That the Tenant shall make and keep on the Premises for a period of at least two (2) years from the end of the Lease Year to which they are applicable or, if an audit is required or a controversy should arise between the parties hereto regarding Rent payable hereunder, then until such audit or controversy is terminated, correct

permanent sales records (indicating daily sales reports) in accordance with good accounting and retail practice, which shall be open to the inspection and audit of the Landlord or its duly appointed representative at all reasonable times.

Believe it or not, that is just one sentence. To fully understand how difficult that is to read I put the text through a readability assessment. This assessment uses various tests to determine what grade level you must have to easily comprehend what is written. Scores over 22 should generally be taken to mean graduate level text and most newspapers and non-technical books write for a grade 4 reading level

How did this fair?

Readability Formula Grade
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 22.2
Gunning-Fog Score 25.9
Coleman-Liau Index 12.7
SMOG Index 16.3
Automated Readability Index 25.3
Average Grade Level 20.5

These tests indicate that this one clause could a person reading at a PhD level. No wonder leases intimidate people.

Now read that clause again. But this time pick out the most basic intent of the clause. You can either underline the important text or highlight it with a highlighting pen. But remember that if you make further copies of highlighted text, the highlighted portions may turn black depending on the colour of highlighter used.

How do you do that without having a PhD to understand the clause in the first place?

Use the Who, What, When method.

Almost all lease clauses provide direction to someone to do something by some time. To simplify the wording – for everyday needs – highlight Who must take action, What that action is and When is must be done.

Here is what you get:

That the Tenant shall make and keep on the Premises for a period of at least two (2) years from the end of the Lease Year to which they are applicable or, if an audit is required or a controversy should arise between the parties hereto regarding Rent payable hereunder, then until such audit or controversy is terminated, correct permanent sales records (indicating daily sales reports) in accordance with good accounting and retail practice, which shall be open to the inspection and audit of the Landlord or its duly appointed representative at all reasonable times.

And now the score is:

Readability Formula Grade
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.8
Gunning-Fog Score 11.6
Coleman-Liau Index 8
SMOG Index 6
Automated Readability Index 10.1
Average Grade Level 8.9

There is certainly a lot more in the original clause than in the simplified, pared down version, such as where the documents should be kept, how they should be formatted, etc. But anyone reading the highlighted copy for the daily management of the lease will know that, in most circumstances, the tenant must keep sales records for two years after each lease year and those records may be audited by the landlord.

This isn’t a substitution for the exact lease wording and an understanding both the business and legal aspects of the original wording. It is however, a quick guide to gaining a basic understanding of the lease requirements for your day to day need.

Always remember that the lease is written from two perspectives.

The first is the legal perspective. That is why we have long complicated clauses as lawyers attempt to minimize risk by including as many specifics as possible over as many potential situations as possible. For this reason alone, the lease should be reviewed with a competently trained lawyer specializing in commercial real estate.

The second is the business perspective. The lease is the ongoing contract between the landlord and the tenant, so it must cover how that relationship will work over the time of the lease. This is a completely separate way of looking at the lease as compared to the legal point of view. Therefore, you need a commercial lease expert, such as our firm, to show you the business implications of the lease and how to properly negotiate the lease to protect your interests.

Simple Ways to Improve Operating Returns for Retail Property Owners

Graph  It doesn’t take a business degree to know that to improve operating return at the corporate or property level means revenues must increase, expenses must decrease or a combination of the two. Aside from the obvious question of occupancy, we’ll explore some other aspects to improving returns.

At the company/enterprise level removing waste, eliminating redundancy and cost containment are all common sense ways to add value. As is a serious review of the debt structure and financing options. Another avenue to explore is to examine the company’s sacred cows – policies and processes that have been implemented over time. Some may no longer be needed or the methodology may be outdated. Challenging the status quo may reveal hidden opportunities. For example, I’ve long advocated that the way property management services are delivered to both the owners of property and their tenants is completely outdated and is actually hurting tenant renewal rates and property returns. Moreover, by realigning staff duties in the manner I have suggested, management companies can reduce their overall costs of service delivery by as much as 15%.

The way leases are structured and the mechanics of them can also improve value. In the early 1980’s Cadillac Fairview, a leading mall developer and owner, instituted an across the board HVAC basic charge. It was a sinking fund established to pay for the replacement of roof top units, air handlers, central plant equipment, etc. The concept was drafted into the company’s standard lease form and used for all future new leases. There are many other items in the way a lease is structured that can have a positive impact on returns; such as how renewal options are treated, how the space is used and measured, and how amortization and depreciation costs are handled.

For example, many landlords provide for a recovery of amortization in their leases, but few also specifically note that the landlord should also recover an interest cost on the amortization. When explaining why the landlord should receive an interest component to the amortization, I liken the capitalized (and then amortized expense) to a loan to the common area to the benefit of the tenants. If a tenant pushes back I provide this example.

“Lets assume the landlord will need to replace the roof membrane, the cost of which is, say, $250,000. This is a recoverable expense, but the tenant doesn’t want to be charged with their portion of a $250,000 expense in one year; so the expense is repaid through amortization of, say 10 years. The landlord is out of pocket the initial expense and won’t recover that expense for 10 years. Effectively, the landlord is lending the tenants the $250,000, and just as with any loan the tenants should compensate the landlord for that through interest.”

These are just a few areas of more than a dozen lease refinements I’ve developed for companies I’ve worked with over the years.

One of the biggest lifts in return and value is to change the way lease rates are determined. Many owners and leasing agents for shopping centers still rely on comparable analysis to be the sole determiner of the basic rent. This is a mistake. Rent should be a function of sales – not to be confused with the concept of percentage rent. Using sales as the method for determining base or minimum rent it is possible to create a rent structure that is as much as 35% above comparable rents, based on my personal experience. There is a specific methodology to achieve this. It starts by understanding the market potential in the trade area served and relies on obtaining sales information from each tenant, even if they do not pay percentage rent.

There are a number of opportunities at the property level too. For example, the Greenstead Consulting Group has developed and implemented over 20 different ancillary income streams at the property level. Some produced significant revenues while others did not; but collectively the effect was the same as adding two or three rentable store spaces to the property– without the infrastructure costs.

Another area of additional income from retail properties is through creative densification. The land-mass for retail properties is very large compared to the vertical nature of office buildings. Much of this is dictated by parking ratios mandated in zoning requirements. The typical 5 stalls per thousand square feet of leasable area has been in use for more than 30 years, yet the nature of retail has changed dramatically over the same time. In the 1970’s evening shopping was usually confined to one or two nights a week and virtually no one shopped on Sundays. That parking ratio may have made sense then but does it make sense with the expanded shopping patterns and channels of today?

We convinced a municipal council to adopt a new micro stall designation to accommodate the new ultra small cars, such as the Smart car, and to include designated motorcycle parking as part of the overall parking ratio. Decreasing the average stall size allows for more stalls on the same piece of land. Even with the existing stall ratio, the increase in the number of stalls permits further development on the site. In another densification program increased the site densification that resulted in an $8 Million lift in the property value because the site development could be easily intensified. This improvement came with no additional infrastructure cost, such as a parking structure.

On the expense side of the ledger there are many opportunities to reduce expenses. One that is not widely practiced but that can pay significant dividends is lean maintenance, a concept borrowed from lean manufacturing practices. In lean maintenance there is an understanding that some common maintenance practices have diminished value through the lifecycle of the physical plant. Correcting this is the same as reducing the waste that was inherent in older manufacturing processes.

Repositioning and remodelling can have a positive impact on the revenue and expense of a property. Curb appeal determines customer attraction and what tenants perceive as a desirable location. So we never advocate trimming expenses to the point of harming the impression of the property. This includes capital expenses. However, the timing of the program is critical to obtain the best returns. It is also important to conduct a complete cost benefit analysis and judicious value engineering. Sometimes, just as in theatrical staging, some inexpensive changes can have a dramatic impact on the look and perception of a property.

Improving returns and value is what we do best. Contact us to learn how to transform your investment returns in retail real estate.