The allowance that disappeared – where did it go?


Say you’ve found the perfect office space and are ready to commit to a lease.

When it comes time to negotiate tenant improvements, however, you’ll need to pay close attention and have sage counsel at hand because tenant improvements–including how much and who pays for them–can be the most important part of the deal.

When a tenant moves into new space, it’s common for improvements to be done to make the space fit the new user’s unique needs. Tenant improvements can range from new paint and fresh carpet to knocking out walls to building out a shell.

But exactly how this work is done, such as who hires the contractor and how the money can be spent, can have a huge impact on how good a deal you ultimately secure with your lease.

Savvy tenants often want to do the work themselves so they can control the quality and be assured their tenant allowance is stretched as far as it can be. They also don’t want to lose sleep at night worrying about whether the landlord will pay bills for the contractor and architect when they come due.

The landlord, meanwhile, wants to keep the money and earn interest on it. They are motivated to control the build-out process and retain fees that cut into the money that goes to the contractor. Landlords also like to restrict what the money can be spent on, preferring it pay for changes that improve their property versus items such as furniture and cabling, which benefit the tenant.

Recently we were representing an advertising firm that was moving into a renovated, 1930s warehouse. The other tenants in the building were similar “creative” companies and my client was eager to make a deal. The landlord’s tenant improvement allowance offer was 25% above market, but during our due diligence our contractor found improvements needed to the sprinkler, HVAC and bathrooms to meet ADA requirements that would have used nearly 50% of our tenant improvement allowance. We were able to negotiate with the landlord to make the improvements at his cost, and the deal was made, but without the help of a good GC, the tenant would have spent the equivalent of 3 months rent on bringing the bathrooms up to ADA code!

Throughout the years, I’ve heard from tenants who became unhappy with their tenant improvement allowances after they signed their leases. They’d share with me how the number tossed out by their landlord sounded good at first but once construction bids were in they realized they didn’t get such a good deal after all.

A common horror story I heard after the economic downturn hit was how landlords refused to pay tenant improvement allowances, and even broker commissions, after a deal was cut. This can expose the tenant to expensive litigation. Some tenants also discovered that their space was missing critical systems that were promised (and should be standard) and they had to finish the job out of pocket.

Adding insult to injury, some tenants were shocked to learn that they couldn’t benefit from unspent portions of their tenant improvement allowance.

To avoid these disastrous scenarios, the tenant and landlord should agree during negotiations (before the lease is inked) on what the total cost of the project is and understand how much, if any, the tenant is expected to contribute.

The tenant should fight to make sure there are liberal and flexible provisions on what the tenant allowance can be spent on. Sometimes landlords will allow items such as cabling, depending on market conditions.

If the landlord is reimbursing the tenant for the construction, there should be periodic times (perhaps monthly) when the landlord pays the allowance. We recommend they pay early and often, ideally at least once a month. The landlord will push to pay less frequently.

Other caveats to include or watch for when the landlord is reimbursing the tenant for its construction:

– Landlords will insist on lien waivers before being paid. Make sure you protect yourself against minor contractors who could insist on not signing.

– Don’t let landlords withhold tenant improvement payment if the tenant is in default. If you default for a defensible reason, you don’t want the landlord stopping your construction.

– Decide with the landlord ahead of time on the form and substance of the requisition form that will be required.

– If the amount of work in a given month is less than the landlord feels is appropriate, don’t let them pay less. The tenant improvement reimbursement is a set amount, not one based on work progress.
Agreeing to a tenant improvement allowance is most definitely a buyer-beware situation. But with the right guidance, you can feel confident that the tenant improvement allowance that was negotiated for will be spent as promised. You’ll have confidence the landlord won’t disappear in the middle of the night with the cash and will instead escrow the funds in the event they are going to sell the building. And you’ll rest assured knowing that money will be available when the contractor is wanting to be paid.

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