Netting Things Out

Alec J. Pacella

One of my favorite types of cuisine is Thai food. I love the variety, flavors and especially the spiciness. Like many, I have my favorite go-to location but was recently in Scottsdale, came across a Thai restaurant and had to give it a try.

While the curry dish that I ordered was fantastic, I made a classic blunder that rendered it almost inedible. With Thai food, it’s common to be able to select a specific spice level, typically expressed as a range from one to 10. At my Lakewood go-to, I always chose a four, which hits me just right. And of course, I did the same thing at this Scottsdale establishment – after all, a four is a four is a four, right? After almost having my eyeballs melt, I was quickly reminded of the danger of assumptions and how a four in Lakewood, Ohio can mean something very different as compared to a four in Scottsdale, Arizona. I know what you are thinking right about now; how is Pacella ever going to tie red curry to real estate? And by now, you likely know the response – read on!
The next day on that Scottsdale trip, I met with a developer that was building a flex-warehouse project. The discussion soon settled on economics and this developer quoted a figure that was preceded with the phrase “modified gross.” I immediately hit the brakes on the conversation, as the memory of my scorched
tonsils was still very fresh. I needed to understand exactly what the developer’s definition of modified gross was, as this is one of those terms that can mean dramatically different things to different people. This month, we are going to discuss the terminology used to describe the most common lease structures. Along the way, I will point out specific items to be aware of and components that can vary.
Leases generally fall into two camps: net and gross. The term “net” is an indication that, in addition to rent, the tenant is also responsible for a portion of the related occupancy expenses such as real estate taxes, insurance, common area maintenance, repairs, etc. The term “gross” is an indication that the rent
includes landlord contributions to at least some portion of occupancy expenses.

The following is a hierarchy of lease types, ranging from the types with the greatest tenant responsibilities to the types with the greatest landlord responsibilities.

Absolute net lease
This lease structure requires the tenant to pay for any costs related to the premises, including real estate taxes, property insurance, repairs, maintenance, utilities, etc. It also requires tenant to pay for large-scale items such as a roof replacement or new HVAC unit or even rebuilding the structure should it be damaged or destroyed. The best example of this type of lease is a ground lease, where a tenant pays rent associated with the underlying ground and is also responsible for all other types of occupancy cost, including constructing, maintaining, repairing and replacement of any improvements. This type of lease can also be referred to as a bond lease and is most often seen in single-tenant retail properties, especially restaurants.


The term “net” is an indication that, in addition to rent, the tenant is also responsible for a portion of the related occupancy expenses….
The term “gross” is an indication that the rent includes landlord contributions to at least some portion of occupancy expenses.


Triple net lease
This is by far the most widely used lease term and, like the term “cap rate,” it is often thrown around with reckless abandon. While some may assume this type of lease to result in the tenant paying for everything, that’s not usually the case. Let’s talk about what the tenant does pay for – in addition to rent, the three “nets” are real estate taxes, insurance and common area maintenance. These can be paid either directly (the tenant contracts for and pays the snow plowing expense) or indirectly (the landlord contracts for and pays the snow plowing expense and then sends a bill to the tenant for reimbursement). Now let’s talk about what the tenant does not pay for. Top of the list is replacement of major items, such as roof, mechanicals, structure or parking lot. And some gray can creep into this, as the lines between maintenance and replacement can be blurry. For example, an HVAC unit may need the belts replaced and a control unit swapped out. Would that be considered a repair (and thus an expense borne by the tenant) or a replacement (and thus an expense borne by the landlord). Another item is rebuilding expense. Suppose part of the property’s façade is damaged due to high winds – is this the tenant’s responsibility to repair or the landlords? While a well- constructed lease document will make situations like these clearer, one cannot simply rely on the term “triple net” as a catch-all. This type of lease is most often seen among multi-tenant retail properties, as well as single-tenant retail, industrial and office properties.


Modified gross lease
If ever there was a catch-all term, this would be it. Also known as a double net or a hybrid lease, this structure connotes that some of the expense responsibility falls on the tenant and some falls on the landlord. Unfortunately, that’s as clear as things get. Sometimes, it means that the landlord pays for insurance and common area maintenance and the tenant pays for real estate taxes. Other times, it can mean that the landlord pays for real estate taxes and the tenant pays for insurance and common area maintenance. And still other times, it may mean that the landlord pays for maintenance and real estate.


Full service gross lease typically implies that the tenant pays for all operating expenses, such as real estate taxes, insurance, repairs and maintenance of the grounds and building, etc. up to a set threshold. Future increases in these collective expenses that exceed the threshold
are the responsibility of the tenant.


Full-service gross lease

This is a very common structure in multi-tenant office properties in our market. It typically implies that the tenant pays for all operating expenses, such as real estate taxes, insurance, repairs and maintenance of the grounds and building, etc. up to a set threshold. Future increases in these collective expenses that exceed the threshold are the responsibility of the tenant. The tenant is also responsible for electricity usage within their premises, sometimes referred to as “lights and plugs.” But even this common structure has some pitfalls. One is janitorial – sometimes the landlord contracts and pays for cleaning of the tenant’s premises and other times the tenant will be required to contract for cleaning directly. Another is electricity. As electrical usage can be directly metered to the tenant’s premises, it can be sub-metered to the tenant’s premises, or it can be fed via a master meter and then charged on a pro rata basis.

Absolute gross lease
This structure is rarely seen, save for one type of tenant. And if any of you have ever been involved with a lease for the U.S. Government, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In an absolute gross lease, the landlord pays for everything for the entire term of the lease. There are no pass-throughs, escalations or separately metered utilities. The day the lease is signed, the tenant will know exactly what they will be paying each month for the entire duration of the lease. There is not a “one size fits all” lease structure and even when we hear a common term, there can still be nuances. As I was painfully reminded in Scottsdale, assuming you know something based on a commonly used term can be a sure way to get burned!

Alec Pacella, CCIM, president at NAI Pleasant Valley, can be reached by phone at 216-455-0925 or by email at apacella@naipvc.com. You can connect with him at http://www.linkedin.com/in/alecpacellaccim or subscribe to his youtube channel; What I C at PVC.

See Properties Magazine for March 2022

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