During my day to day, I draft and negotiate my fair share of commercial lease agreements. They range from office leases, to retail leases and industrial leases but in almost every case, especially with new clients leasing their first space, the conversation begins the same; they say "I am going to send you a simple lease that my Landlord drew up, take a quick look and let me know it all looks good"; and I respond, "Send me the lease and I'll take a look."
Most real estate lawyers are familiar with this elusive document, the simple lease, so often described by clients eager get their business up and running and turning a profit. Unfortunately, Landlord leases are typically one sided at best and the clauses invariably tilt to the Landlord's advantage.
One example of a lease clause that can be surprisingly expensive for tenants is the clause governing operating expenses. Most tenants understand the difference between a triple net lease and a gross lease; the former is structured so that in addition to base rent, tenants are responsible for a share of operating expenses (the landlord's real estate taxes, insurance and costs to operate the building in which the premises are located) and the latter is structured so that tenants pay a single rental payment that includes everything. In the commercial setting, triple net lease forms are very common and tenants often sign these leases without legal review and counseling. Operating expense provisions seem simple - the tenant pays its share of the operating costs, but, oftentimes the lease language is overly generous with what may be included in the operating costs. An example of expenses that should be excluded or at least carefully limited are capital expenses. Furthermore, its ordinary for tenants to ask for a cap on annual operating cost increases so they can budget for the worst case scenario during each lease year. If there is no cap on operating expenses then they can expand and increase without limit and Landlords have little motivation to keep their costs down when they can be passed through to tenants without question. Another important concept when it comes to operating expenses is language providing the tenant a right to audit the Landlord's books. A good audit provision should provide that if the audit reveals overcharges exceeding a certain percentage, the Landlord will be responsible for paying the audit costs. A skilled real estate attorney understands which expense categories are inappropriate to pass through their clients and can help their clients limit ballooning expenses and excess expense pass throughs.
The key to providing useful legal counsel to tenants in commercial lease negotiations involves picking one's battles. A typical commercial lease agreement contains upwards of 50 clauses and its possible to negotiate each one, however sending proposed revisions to all or nearly all of the lease clauses is sure to cause delays (which neither side wants) and sometimes, it can blow a deal. Evaluating which clauses will be most important to a client begins with understanding the nature of their business very well and then focusing on the clauses that relate to their business and those which may cost them additional money above and beyond rental payments. The expense clauses in triple net leases certainly qualify there!
Before signing that next "simple lease" have an attorney take a look and help you try to balance the important terms. Its very difficult to help a tenant after they've signed the document!