NET Lease Knowledge Base

A triple net (NNN) lease is defined as a lease structure where the tenant is responsible for paying all operating expenses associated with a property. The triple net or NNN lease is considered a “turnkey” investment since the landlord is not responsible for paying any operating expenses. With that said, in order to fully understand the NNN lease you must first understand the spectrum of commercial real estate leases.

There are three basic types of commercial real estate leases. These leases are organized around two rent calculation methods: “net” and “gross.”
The gross lease typically means a tenant pays one lump sum for rent, from which the landlord pays his expenses.
The net lease has a smaller base rent, with other expenses paid for by the tenant.

The modified gross lease is a happy marriage between the two. While terms vary widely building by building, this basic overview will help businesses shop for the best deal possible.

Gross Lease or Full Service Lease

In a gross lease, the rent is all-inclusive. The landlord pays all or most expenses associated with the property, including taxes, insurance, and maintenance out of the rents received from tenants. Utilities and janitorial services are included within one easy, tenant-friendly rent payment.

When negotiating a gross lease, the tenant should ask which janitorial services are provided, and how often they are offered. Excess utility consumption beyond building standards is sometimes charged back to tenant; so if the tenant is a big consumer of electricity, this point should be clarified in the lease as well. The tenant pays his own property insurance and taxes.

A benefit of this type of lease is that it is supremely easy for the tenant, which can forecast expenses without worrying about an unexpected lobby maintenance charge, for example. The landlord assumes all responsibility for the building, while tenants concentrate on growing their businesses.

Net Lease

In a net lease, the landlord charges a lower base rent for the commercial space, plus some or all of “usual costs,” which are expenses associated with operations, maintenance, and use that the landlord pays.
These can include real estate taxes; property insurance; and common area maintenance items (CAMS), which include janitorial services, property management fees, sewer, water, trash collection, landscaping, parking lots, fire sprinklers, and any commonly shared area or service.

There are several types of net leases:

  • Single Net Lease (N) Lease
    In this lease, the tenant pays base rent plus a pro-rata share of the building’s property tax (meaning a portion of the total bill based on the proportion of total building space leased by the tenant); the landlord covers all other building expenses. The tenant also pays utilities and janitorial services.
  • Double Net Lease (NN Lease)
    The tenant is responsible for base rent plus a pro-rata share of property taxes and property insurance. The landlord covers expenses for structural repairs and common area maintenance. The tenant once again is responsible for their own janitorial and utility expenses.
  • Triple Net Lease (NNN Lease)
    This is the most popular type of net lease for commercial freestanding buildings and retail space. It is known as the net net net lease, or NNN lease, where the tenant pays all or part of the three “nets”–property taxes, insurance, and CAMS–on top of a base monthly rent. Common area utilities and operating expenses are usually lumped in as well; for example, the cost for staffing a lobby attendant would be part of the NNN fees. Of course, tenants also pay the costs of their own occupancy, including janitorial services, utilities, and their own insurance and taxes.Landlords typically estimate expenses and charge tenants a portion of these expenses based on their proportionate, or pro-rata share. A tenant who leases 1,000 square feet of a 10,000 square foot building would be expected to pay 10% of the building’s taxes, insurance, and CAMS, for example. Triple net leases tend to be more landlord-friendly, and tenants should carefully review NNN fees.
    An NNN lease can also fluctuate from month to month and year to year as operating expenses increase or decrease, making the company’s expense forecasting tricky and sometimes frustrating.There are tenant benefits in the NNN leases, however.
    Transparency is an excellent perk, since tenants can see business operating expenses in relation to what they are charged. Cost savings in operating expenses are passed on to the tenant rather to the landlord. In addition, the monthly rent in a NNN lease is potentially lower than in a gross lease, as tenants have a higher level of responsibility for the building.
  • Absolute Triple Net Lease
    This is a less common option that is more rigid and binding than the NNN lease, where tenants carry every imaginable real estate risk, for example, being responsible for construction expenses to rebuild after a catastrophe, or for continuing to pay rent even after the building has been condemned. Aptly called the “hell-or-high-water lease,” tenants have ultimate responsibility for the building no matter what.

Modified Gross Lease

As the gross lease is more tenant-friendly, and the net lease tends to be more landlord-friendly, there exists a compromise lease for the convenience of both parties. The modified gross lease (sometimes called the modified net lease) is similar to a gross lease in that the rent is requested in one lump sum, which can include any or all of the “nets”–property taxes, insurance, and CAMS. Utilities and janitorial services are typically excluded from the rent, and covered by the tenant. Tenants and landlords negotiate which “nets” are included in the base rental rate.

The modified gross lease is more popular with tenants, because its flexibility translates into an easier agreement between tenant and landlord. Unlike the NNN lease, if insurance, taxes or CAM charges increase, the initial year’s lease rate would not change. Of course, if those expenses decrease, the cost savings is passed on to the landlord. As janitorial service and electricity are not covered, tenants can better control how much they spend compared to a gross lease.

How to pick the right lease for you

When evaluating options for office space leasing, it is important to compare the different lease options with an eye toward all expenses, and not just the base rental rates. NNN base rental rates tend to be much lower, with additional expenses added for the real monthly rate.

Market forces will even out rental rates for comparable properties, regardless of type of lease. Tenants should expect to pay roughly the same amount once expenses are included with an NNN, modified gross, or full service lease for similar quality office spaces in the same area.

The most important rule of commercial leases is for tenants to read their leases carefully, and clarify exactly for what expenses they are responsible. Circumstances under which additional charges will occur should always be identified!

What the NNN Lease Does Not Include

Even if your lease is a true absolute net lease, a common misconception is that even a true absolute net lease covers ALL expenses associated with a property, which is not always the case. While a true absolute NNN lease with a strong tenant can be thought of as a turnkey commercial property from the landlord or investor’s perspective, even an absolute net lease has some expenses that won’t be covered by the tenant(s).

For example, it’s rare for an NNN lease to cover the accounting costs charged by the landlords CPA or legal costs charged by the landlord’s attorneys when drafting or reviewing documents. While these costs are usually small relative to the purchase price of a property, they are nonetheless not typically covered in a standard “NNN lease”.

Triple Net Lease Investment Risk

A common misconception with triple net lease investments is that they are almost risk-free. While triple net investments do offer several advantages, there are still several risks that should be taken into consideration. The primary advantages of triple net lease investments are that you get a predictable revenue stream due to the long-term leases and pass-throughs in place, and you also get a relatively hassle-free investment due to the low management requirements.

While these are compelling advantages, triple net leases also do come with several inherent risks. First, because most triple net lease investments are for single-tenant properties, tenant credit risk is important to understand. For example, not many today doubt the strength of a triple net Walgreens investment since the lease is guaranteed by the parent company, which is publicly traded and financially strong. On the other hand, it is very possible for financial strong and publicly traded tenant to fall out of favor over the term of the lease and ultimately go bankrupt. Since single tenant triple net properties are either 0% vacant or 100% vacant, this should be taken into consideration.

Another risk to consider is the risk of re-leasing. A lot of triple net investment properties are sold towards the end of a longer term lease, shifting the risk of re-leasing the property to the new owner. If the new owner does not have this skillset or a strong team to handle this, then this could present considerable tenant rollover risk.

Accessing Tenant Credit Risk

One important component to take into account when analyzing a triple net lease investment property is understanding the credit risk of the actual tenant(s). After all, a lease is only as strong as the tenant behind it, so analyzing the financial statements of the tenant on the other side of the NNN lease is critical in understanding downside risk.

Many single tenant triple net lease deals involve publicly traded companies such as Starbucks, Walgreens, or Arby’s. In this case it’s easy to pull up credit ratings on the companies bond issues and to also read stock analyst reports.

For private companies credit analysis requires some more effort, but analyzing financial statements and trends to better understand credit risk is a worthwhile endeavor. For these situations, here’s a primer on better understanding tenant credit analysis.

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