I’m not crazy about condominiums. Here’s why: Other people (the condo association – which is often controlled by a very small group of individuals) get to vote on how to spend your money. Some of those choices may not add value for you or to your property. Operating expenses on leased commercial property work the same way. The management company, which is the property ownership or someone under their direct control, gets to decide what expenses get passed through to the property tenants. So what expenses do they pass through? Every single one that they can possibly get away with. There are only two methods of protection for tenants, and I’d estimate that more than half of all leases don’t fully take advantage of them.
Protection #1: Operating Expense Exclusions.
Most commercial leases say something to the effect that the landlord may pass through all expenses (or the expenses over a base year) related to the ownership, maintenance, and operation of the project. As long as these expenses are market competitive, that’s fair or at least customary, right? Wrong. The landlord should only be passing through the costs of maintenance and operation, not ownership. Ownership could include costs of refinancing, marketing the property for sale or lease, legal costs related to the ownership structure, accounting fees for ownership tax returns – even income tax. Taxes are a cost of ownership. My point is, you need to exclude those costs and any other costs with specific language because the landlord’s thirty or fifty page document (or more, I’ve completed leases of more than a hundred pages and the landlord’s attorney didn’t have a single word in there by mistake) allows everything including their Christmas party, executive meetings in Las Vegas, and hiring family members to provide management or lawn service. You need to have a long list of what is NOT allowable, and argue to get them into every lease. You won’t always succeed on every item, though you should always try.
Protection #2: Auditing.
You need to audit the Operating Expense Reconciliation that you receive from your landlord annually. Why? Because if you have used Protection #1 to modify your lease in any way, you can bet that whomever actually does the bookkeeping has never bothered to read the changes that you made to the provision. My firm has seen landlords ignore negotiated caps or limits included in the lease and include capital improvement costs, expenses directly for the benefit of a another tenant, costs related to code issues that existed before the tenant’s lease commenced, and costs for services that were not competitively bid and significantly out of line with the market. If you don’t have the time, expertise, or resources to audit the reconciliations yourself, hire an outside firm on a contingent basis. Most importantly, do it in the first year of your lease, so that you 1) put the landlord on notice that you are the “auditing type” – most tenants are not – and will nail them on any inappropriate charges and 2) identify any issues early in the relationship, since most leases prevent you from challenging expenses or auditing prior years after a certain period – some as short as 30 days after receipt of the reconciliation.
A recent trend that we’re seeing is the inclusion of six-figure executive salaries(with titles such as Asset Manager or Director of Properties) usually split between several properties. As the economy puts the pinch on commercial landlords, they are allocating as much of their overhead as possible to their portfolio’s operating expenses. If you are lucky, you’ll have inserted language into the original lease that prohibits salaries above a property manager. And if you’re smart, you’ll audit the operating expense reconciliation to enforce your rights. When it comes to pass-through expense, Less is most certainly More.