In the last blog (April Fool or Successful Investor, 01 April 2014), I said “successful investment in commercial property includes the ability to be discerning, the more adept you become, the more you can gauge at a glance whether the proposition is likely to perform. Performance despite any resistance by the tenant. Why would the tenant resist?”
Apart from vacant property that might go up in value of its own accord, an occurrence that can reflect change of use for planning permission, development potential, and demand from owner-occupiers, the investment potential in commercial property depends upon tenants.
Tenants are the customers for investors in commercial property.
The property-relationship between landlord and tenant hinges on the terms and conditions of the tenancy; in popular parlance, the lease. Generally, investors prefer what is known as a ‘clean’ lease: an institutional standard whereby most if not all the responsibilities for the use of the premises fall on the tenant, and with no ambiguity in the interpretation of the contract.
Leases in the commercial property market are a challenge for investors, because there is no standard form of lease in common usage. Many landlords and tenants and lawyers have their own standard leases that incorporate specific requirements, but all are subjective. To assume the terms and conditions in each lease would be the same in every other is a mistake.
Drafting a lease is about recording the agreement in writing, the choice of words and phrases that spell out the responsibilities between landlord and tenant. On grant of a new lease, the onus is on the landlord’s side to draft and on the tenant’s side to approve. Sometimes, where the tenant has specific requirements, the tenant’s lawyer will offer to draft the lease but that is usually only to save time. Better for the tenant to provide the wording required rather than the landlord have to guess. Unfortunately, whether through drafting inexperience or error, and because many landlords and tenants can’t be bothered to read the ‘small print’ before signing the document, the wording of a lease will often differ from what the parties intended, so ambiguities in interpretation can arise.
Disputes involving differences in interpretation that are taken to court constitute the body of case-law. The drafting of leases is also fashionable. The widespread use of precedents, often followed slavishly, can result in little or no thought being given to ensuring the performance of the investment.
The duration of a lease, the term of the tenancy, is often for years. Leases may be shorter now, 10 years perhaps with a break clause at the 5th year, but 15-25 years remain popular, not least because bank criteria for lending to tenants requires a secure term of at least 8 years.
Leases are fixed documents whose terms and conditions can only be varied by mutual agreement, or rectification usually only by the original parties. The market, however, is not fixed: it is continually changing. What is a market? A market is anywhere business is done. Transactions are usually for money, but may involve bartering goods and are conducted between sellers and buyers, or through agents, wholesalers, manufacturers, brokers, etc. Marketing happens when we want to satisfy a need and are willing to exchange something with someone able to help us satisfy that need. The process exists to bring buyers and sellers into a market. In business, the transaction is reciprocal. Business is about helping people in exchange for money.
Markets exist to serve the needs of participants and for identification have classifications and categories: for example, the property market, whose categories include residential property, commercial property, and so on. Naturally inactive, markets become active when fuelled and driven by a range of different influences, all of which originate in how the participants in the particular market respond to whatever is or perceived to be happening in the reality that the market exists to serve.
With commercial property, the ups-and-downs of the market are not necessarily dependent upon whatever is happening in the economy at large so the line of reasoning may be hard to follow, but that doesn’t mean we cannot remain in sync with any changes: all that’s needed is flexibility. Leases, however, are inflexible: what was agreed years ago may not be relevant now.
Where the landlord and tenant are the same parties throughout the term, it is probably less likely for either or both to want to interpret the terms and conditions of the lease in a way that differed from their original intention, unless to material advantage and being unconcerned about the risk of falling out over a dispute. Where one or both of the original parties have changed, and since leases are themselves assets that can be bought and sold (subject to any restrictions), a successor-landlord or successor-tenant might have a different view of the intention of the original parties.
Buying an existing investment means taking over a lease that may be outmoded or badly drafted, whose terms and conditions may work against the investment objective. Conversely, leases may contain words and phrases that serve the landlord more than the tenant. It is a question of finding. As I say, anyone can read a lease, it’s knowing what to look for that really counts.
Once upon a time, it would have been unusual for tenants to take professional advice from surveyors. Surveyors acted for landlords and tenants generally did as they were told. Tenants were subservient. For many years, on the RICS application form for dispute resolution procedure, under the heading ‘tenant representative’ were the words, in parentheses, “if any”.
Life was never the same again for landlords following the House of Lords ruling in United Scientific Holdings v Burnley Borough Council . Briefly, the landlord had missed the date for the rent review notice, so the tenant argued the landlord had lost the right to review the rent.
As I said, (01 April 2014) “We (surveyors) know that landlords become successful when their investments perform. We also know that tenants become successful not just when their businesses are performing well but also when the total property cost commitment is kept to a minimum.” Reducing property costs and minimising tenancy liabilities makes sense for tenants but is unlikely to make any sense for landlords. The idea that provided the premises are economical, tenants more likely to stay the course, is defeated because tenants want to have it both ways. They want the lowest rents and the least liabilities together with the most flexibility. Scrutinising the wording and phrasing of the terms and conditions of leases in the hope of scoring points either for landlord or tenant is big business for surveyors and lawyers. It works both ways: landlords can benefit enormously from a different interpretation; for tenants, a single word, a turn of phrase, can often result in a substantial reduction in rent or relief from liability.
Apart from whether the landlord is legally entitled to more (as distinct from having the right to expect more) and whether the tenant is legally entitled to less (as distinct from thinking the world owes it a living), landlord and tenant each in their own ways want to maintain a profitable relationship with the location of the property. The adage “location, location, location” is a fundamental ingredient for successful investment which might be thought ‘old school’ compared with the relatively recent popular demand for tenant-covenant, but the adage remains nevertheless the more important. Unlike covenant which depends upon the tenant wanting to remain in occupation, the property is fixed and immoveable. In other words, if you buy a property let, for example, to a bank which, as a blue-chip covenant, would normally fetch a higher price in the investment market, but the bank does not renew its lease or exercises a break clause then you’d no longer have the bank as a tenant but you still have the property.
Subject to compliance with the lease, how the tenant chooses to run its business is nothing to do with the landlord, but it is to do with the customers whom the tenant’s business serves. Why those customers and/or type of customers choose to have their needs satisfied by one particular business over another is a function of marketing, and of location. Therefore, the challenge for any tenant that is doing well is whether the success of the business venture is more a reflection of the tenant’s modus operandi or mostly a spin-off from the popularity of the location. For example, acting for a landlord, I let a shop to a business specialising in sale and hire of videos (DVDs, etc) of old movies. The tenant needed to relocate from nearby because its premises there were going to be redeveloped. The tenant was convinced he was doing well because of the specialised nature of his business but as he soon discovered it was more to do with where he was based before. My Client’s shop was not in such a good position and the passing trade was not enough to support the tenant’s business at rent the tenant had agreed. That didn’t make the rent wrong in itself; but just for that type of business.
Appraising the merits of location has become more difficult now that on-line commerce is accepted generally amongst customers. There are many tenants that have downsized to improve efficiency and consolidated premises in order to reduce costs. Many retailers have closed their bricks-and-mortar presence on the high street because the cost of providing a physical place for doing business is considerably more expensive than trading on-line. A virtual presence on-line is akin to mail order but with trimmings.
For multiple retailers, it used to be that to have branches in 200 towns (and cities) would provide almost 100% geographical catchment. Now it’s 50 or so and in future a few stores in top centres might be all that is needed. Whenever locations become centres of attention, the benchmark changes for everyone else. Hence, the ongoing and potentially improving popularity of the location, attractiveness and so on, is important for a landlord. A location that doesn’t have what it takes to attract the calibre of tenant that would contribute to the appeal of the location is unlikely to be able to compete successfully with those locations that do. Since the location is where the property is, the potential for the property should be considered by reference to the factors that obviously contribute now and those in the offing.
Factors in the offing may not be apparent, or rather not so acceptable to the majority: what is clear to some or a few may be laughable to others, but location is not about personal resistance to change, but swirling undercurrents gathering steam, the groundswell of powerful feelings. For example, in the June 1989 issue of my newsletter for clients and contacts, I said that the emergence of the ‘Green’ consumer marked the onset of a major shift in attitude that would have repercussions for all aspects of future retailing. Nowadays, ‘Green’ issues and all that they have spawned such as sustainability, Energy Performance Certificates, and such like, are taken for granted but in the same way the world-wide-web has only been with us for 25 years yet seems like forever so ‘Green’ is a relatively new entrant to mainstream thinking.
Essentially, the direction of a market is geared to progress, which, in the context of personal and business development, may be inwards or outwards depending upon priorities and aspirations. The challenge for all business tenants is to synchronise with customers, and for all landlords to synchronise with tenants, but that does not have to mean the actual tenant. Whether a landlord wants to hang on the actual tenant, rather than take its chances in the market, is a matter of investment policy. And whether a tenant wants to become a tenant of a particular landlord depends upon what that landlord has to offer in the way of property. Similarly, whether a tenant wants to continue catering for a particular type of customer is a matter for that particular tenant. Not so much an instability as the desire to remain in sync, the constant re-aligning, rejigging, pruning and fine-tuning of freehold and leasehold interests by thousands of landlords and tenants is the reason for the number of commercial properties in the market at any time.
For retailers, for example, trading positions change according to the influences on (potential) trade. A prime position today could be become secondary in future, and vice versa. The identity of multiple retailers is not in itself a reliable indicator of a good location: the question is whether most if not all of those particular multiple retailers would jump at the chance of getting a shop in that location if they were not already there. Or would they leap at the first opportunity to get out? When you buy a property, you are not buying the whole of the market, you are buying a particular property. Assessing tenant-covenant is not just about appraising the financial standing of the tenant as a whole, but also identifying the tenant’s intention for that particular property. What you have to ask is if the tenant vacates on break clause or end of the lease, whether the property would relet to a tenant whose covenant would at least be on a par with the outgoing tenant and the rent, the terms and conditions of the new lease at least maintain the investment value.
Since properties worth keeping through thick and thin are rarely offered for sale, which means 99% of propositions in any auction catalogue are probably not worth buying, anyone following my advice might think they’d never buy anything! But why buy for the sake of it? Why invest in buying and owning a commercial property if there’s little or no likelihood of it performing. Of you being better off than you were? One answer, of course, is that I could be wrong. In a market whose prices are mostly driven by sentiment, rather than technicalities, surely any property acquired at the right price will perform over the long term at least? Therefore, it may be not that you shouldn’t buy anything that takes your fancy, but just a question of price. The answer to whether the price is right can only be subjective. The intrinsic value of an asset, over and above its scrap value is largely based on sentiment. [Talking of scrap value, just because the property could cost more to build than the asking price for the end-product does not make the property worth buying. All property has a shelf-life in the demand-market, regardless of any potential for change of planning use.]
Sentiment can get in the way of appraisal by scoffing at technicalities as surmountable. In other words, if all else fails then buy yourself out of trouble. If I were an investor in property then frankly I’d rather not waste time on what is likely to prove a non-performing investment based on technicalities, but since I don’t invest in property (other than a home) the only way I can emphasise with sentiment-investment is in the context of trading: buy to resell on the momentum. Otherwise all I can do is point out the pitfalls and what can go wrong by ignoring the technicalities. What can wrong because the tenant resists resolutely. Hence, my contribution to the success of the landlord’s choice of commercial property is to use my know-how to either at least maintain or better still improve the investment performance. And for that one needs an in-depth knowledge of the technicalities and negotiating psychology, because it is through the use of the technicalities and ploys that tenants can make or break the landlord’s investment.
Although the pace of change is tenant-demand geared to customers, the driving force that has transformed the commercial property landscape from a relatively level-playing field into a polarised market is the successful use of the technicalities and negotiating ploys by tenants and their advisers. Consequently, at a macro-level, some locations have what is takes and have gone for it, others are fighting for survival and in many cases dying on their feet. In the quest for solutions to the havoc wreaked on local economies and communities, one can pinpoint the more obvious macro- reasons for decline, business rates, high rents, local authority parking charges, out-of-town supermarkets, retail parks, etc, but since those factors are nationwide, it still doesn’t explain why some locations are more successful than others.
In my opinion, the underlying reason is organic: a feeling that is equivalent to the institutional property investor’s idea of a ‘clean’ lease. In its tangible form, it is a desire by profitable customers and successful and aspirational tenants to avoid mixing with all and sundry. Why lease tatty premises from a greedy amateur investor in a declining area when one can rent a gleaming building from a professional landlord in a good location, and often for not that much more, all told. The desire for organic in the sense of authenticity, open communication and transparency remains as strong as ever. In my opinion, one that seems to be shared by a good many others, most provincial towns have gone ex-growth. The core organic positions have been redeveloped, thereby acting as a magnet for the tenant-spending power, leaving the peripheral positions to fend for themselves.
The art of selling investments that in future will under-perform has succeeded in wooing hundreds of private investors into dud locations.
The dumping of non-performing investments by shrewd sellers on the inexperienced is nothing new but, nowadays, with the bulk of investments offered at auction the fever has spread. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to buy a property currently let to a good tenant in a nice place. But that’s not the point: it’s not whether you as the landlord would like the location, but whether the tenant would renew the lease on at least the same overall basis as now, and the premises would if vacant be lettable to a tenant whose corporate image would help enhance the location and stimulate demand from other like-minded tenants as well. If there is any doubt whatsoever about either one or both of those factors then until a change arises you are stuck with the technicalities, so you may as well use them to your advantage.
to be continued……