Compared with purchasing premises, renting is flexible and ties up a minimal amount of capital. Most businesses rent their premises, either through a lease or a licence.
However, be on your guard. Property law can be complex and verbal agreements do not count. The golden rules are not to assume anything, and to get everything in writing.
This briefing focuses on the terms under which you occupy rented premises. It covers:
- Basic points to check.
- The main features of a licence.
- The key terms in a lease.
- How to negotiate a deal.
1 The basics
Check what it is that you are renting.
1.1 When comparing premises use fixed cost - rent, rates and service charges - per square metre as your yardstick.
- In particular, service charges and rates can be high.
- Check that you do not have to pay the landlord's legal costs.
- On a lease, the tenant normally pays stamp duty and registration fees.
- In some circumstances, VAT may be charged on the rent. Depending on your own VAT status this may be reclaimable.
Establish what your first invoice would be, including a full breakdown. Then confirm which additional items could be added by the landlord to future invoices.
1.2 Is the building owned by the person who is renting it to you?
- Does this person have the legal right to enter into an agreement with you?
1.3 Are the premises unoccupied? Is anything preventing you moving in?
- If there are items left by a previous tenant, who will remove them, and when?
1.4 Are the measurements of the premises accurate (as listed in the selling documents)?
- Check them. Finding a discrepancy may enable you to negotiate a lower rent.
1.5 Are all the agreement details, including the rent and the start and end dates, correct?
1.6 Are your basic rights explicitly mentioned in the agreement? For example:
- Access to the premises 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
- The benefit of any services, such as lighting, heating and cleaning.
- Use of shared facilities, such as washrooms and specific parking places.
- The right to hang signs on the premises (eg your name plaque).
The landlord has similar rights but should be prohibited from unreasonably interfering with the tenant's work.
Noisy or dirty building work carried out in communal areas or adjoining premises can be a problem.
1.7 Are there any restrictions on how you use the property?
- Can the landlord restrain your activities in any way?
- Do you need planning permission to use the premises for the purpose you have in mind?
Normally, and particularly in shared premises, there is a service charge. It covers things like maintenance, cleaning, security, car parking and building reception. Establish if there is any scope for overcharging by the landlord.
How is each service charge calculated?
- Ask existing and previous tenants if the charges are fair.
- Must you pay for services you don't use?
- Your agreement should state that you only have to pay a reasonable proportion of the cost of shared services.
How are you charged for heating, light, power and water?
Try to negotiate a cap on your service charge liability.
There may be a 'sinking fund' to cover the cost of repair and replacement of major items, such as the boiler.
- Avoid paying into such a fund if you are only renting for a short period.
The landlord usually pays for insurance and passes on a proportion of these costs in the service charge.
- You can ask to see the details of the insurance cover.Has it lapsed? Is cover adequate and in line with what you are being charged?
2 Taking a licence
An easy-in, easy-out licence, normally covering a period of up to two years, provides the maximum flexibility.
2.1 You can usually end your licence at one month's notice.
- Your landlord may have the right to give you one month's notice also.
Check whether the landlord has any reason to terminate your licence in the short term.
For example, are there any plans to develop the premises?
- Your landlord may have the right to raise the rent with one month's notice, after a fixed period.
2.2 Many licensed business premises provide support services, such as a staffed reception and building security.
Fully serviced offices may offer secretarial services and meeting rooms for hire.
- Check the costs for these services.
- Ask existing or previous tenants how reliable these services are.
2.3 The licence agreement should be short, simple and in plain English.
Consult a solicitor before signing any agreement.
Beware of licences with complex terms or a long fixed-licence period with no right to break the agreement. These are more like leases.
3 Taking a lease
A lease is a more complex and long-term commitment than a licence.
3.1 How long is the period of the lease?
- Leases can last for any period from one to 25 years or more.
- Some businesses prefer the flexibility of a short lease (eg three years). But these can be difficult to obtain.
3.2 Is there a break clause?
This is an option for you (or the landlord) to terminate the lease early.
3.3 Do you have the right to sublet the premises, or to assign the lease (see 4 and 5)
- This offers another exit route although complex VAT rules should be explored.
3.4 When are the rent review dates?
3.5 Are you required to provide a personal guarantee?
- Avoid these. Otherwise, if your business fails, you will be liable for the rent - and for other payments due under the lease - for the remainder of the lease period.
3.6 Are you required to pay a deposit?
- When will it be repaid, and will you receive interest on it?
- Under what circumstances could the landlord keep all or part of it?
3.7 What will happen when the lease expires?
4 Option to sub-let
Negotiate the widest possible freedom to sublet all or part of the premises you lease.
4.1 Negotiate flexibility in the timing of any subletting.
- You could sublet part of your space at the beginning of your lease, and then take over the rest as your business grows.
- You could sublet some or all of your space if you establish a second premises.
4.2 Negotiate flexibility in the rent you can receive from subletting tenants.
- If market rents have risen since you took on the lease, you may be able to get a higher rent than you are paying.
- Avoid any clause that prevents you subletting at a lower rent.
- To protect your reclaims of any VAT you pay to the landlord, you should carefully consider your own VAT arrangements.
You should be free to conduct negotiations with subletting tenants on your own terms, as long as you do not compromise the security of the landlord.
4.3 Negotiate flexibility in the potential uses of the premises you occupy.
- This gives you the option of subletting space to a business in a different industry.
5 Option to assign
Assigning a lease (passing it on to another business) is like subletting, but a more final step which ends your occupation of the premises.
5.1 The terms of your lease could range from an absolute covenant against assignment, at one extreme, to no restriction at all.
- The terms may be open to interpretation, which can lead to legal disputes.
5.2 You may be required to guarantee the next tenant's payments.
- The landlord can only claim under such a guarantee within six months of the payments by the new tenant ('assignee') becoming due.
6 Repairs and alterations
Who pays for maintaining and repairing the building? Under a lease agreement some or all of the responsibility can fall on the tenant.
6.1 In shared premises, tenants are usually directly responsible only for internal repairs.
- If you take the whole premises, one type of lease is a 'Fully Repairing and Insuring' lease. This means you are liable for all maintenance and insurance costs.
6.2 Establish whether the landlord has a planned maintenance programme.
6.3 Consider having a survey done and insisting on any alterations, repairs and redecoration being completed (and paid for by the landlord) before you sign the lease.
- Check that everything works, such as the heating and plumbing.
6.4 Ensure that you can carry out internal non-structural alterations, such as putting up shelves and partitions.
- Discuss any immediate alterations and get the landlord's approval in writing.
6.5 Establish what 'repairs' ('dilapidations') you will have to pay for at the end of the lease.
Discuss this thoroughly, as it is often a problem area.
In the case of a licence, the landlord may be offering standard terms on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. You may have little scope to improve the terms, unless the landlord is desperate.
7.1 Hire a good solicitor to negotiate your legal agreement. This is the key to safety.
- Choose carefully. Establish how many similar leases the solicitor has handled in the last six months.
- Make the solicitor explain each clause in the agreement to you.
- Discuss worst-case scenarios.
- To find a solicitor, visit www.lawsociety.org.uk/find-a-solicitor/.
7.2 A chartered surveyor (or an incorporated valuer) can advise you on the commercial aspects of the agreement.
7.3 The longer a lease is, the more important it is to negotiate an exit route.
- For example, a break clause, the right to sublet or the right to assign the lease.
7.4 Sell yourself as an ideal tenant.
You should be offered better terms if:
- You can prove your business' ability to pay the rent over the period of the lease.
- The landlord believes you are trustworthy and easy to deal with.
7.5 Get a detailed breakdown of costs, so you can identify items to negotiate on.
- If you cannot avoid certain costs, ask the landlord to cap them at an agreed level.
7.6 Although you should be wary of the VAT implications of any arrangements involving barter or inducements, be prepared to trade concessions.
- You could pay for a repair job in return for a rent-free period.
- You could avoid a personal guarantee by providing a larger deposit.
- In a property slump, landlords may offer incentives, such as a rent-free period, before you even start negotiating.