What I've Learned About Commercial Real Estate Leasing

As I understand it, Russia has this old power plant with plenty of clear height. The commute would be a disaster though. Get it? Disaster? Sigh. In the past two weeks I've embarked on two commercial real estate tours with my real estate agent. We'll call him "Nick" because that's his name, but we'll continue to put his name in quotes because that's pretty damn funny. Anyway, "Nick" has thus far arranged for me to tour about 20 different commercial real estate properties which he thought would make suitable facilities for a brewery.

Probably the first criterion for my location is ceiling height. In the commercial real estate biz this is called "clear height" and means the distance from the floor to the bottom of the lowest ceiling support. Ideally I'd like about 16' but I can certainly go shorter, I just don't want to. Shorter clear heights means shorter fermenters which means, in addition to different fermentation characteristics, more square footage required for a given capacity. This is Chicago and like any big city, things are usually cheaper if you build up. I'll be starting with 30 bbl fermenters, but in the not too distant future I'll need 60 bbl fermenters or larger. I've toured a few spaces on the North Side with large clear heights, but the number of choices is surprisingly limited, but that's fine, I'll make do. There are more on the West and South sides, but those are just too far from my home to make them viable.

Other criteria are obviously price, square footage available now (minimum 5000 SF) and ideally additional adjacent square footage for future expansion, distance from my house, TIF/SBIF availability (we'll cover that some other time if applicable), build out costs, etc. If you're not aware, commercial real estate is priced by $/SF/year. So if you're quoted a price of $10/SF, that means you'll pay $10/SF/year, not per month. The first time I saw a quote, I assumed it was per month and damn near cried. That is not the case. Also, the price quoted will be either "net" or "gross". "Net" means the price does not include property tax, maintenance, insurance, etc. "Gross" means all those costs are included in the quote. If you're quoted "net", your real estate agent will find out what the "gross" is. One way or another, you pay for all those things, it's just how it's quoted by the lessor.

One thing I've noticed immediately is that commercial real estate owners (or their real estate agent surrogates) run the gambit from very friendly and helpful, to stubborn, cheap, ass hats. I won't be dealing with the ass hats. I have too much riding on this to put myself at risk of getting a bum deal with someone who doesn't want to spend money to obtain and maintain a good tenant. When I say "cheap", I'm referring to the two main ways that a commercial real estate owner can help a perspective tenant out: tenant improvement funds ("TI") and abatement.

TI is where the owner agrees to pay for some of the build out costs you require. Obvious candidates for a brewery are: installing 230V 3-phase power on the property, concrete work, trench drains installation. The incentives for an owner to do this could be things such as getting a tenant into a space experiencing extended vacancy or poor condition of the property. The upswing for the owner beyond just getting rent for a previously unrentable space is that they can charge you higher rent to pay for the capital outlay. I'd much rather pay for high construction costs with additional rent payable over years rather than use up precious capital. As part of my business plan, and my overal assumption that nothing will go the way I want it to, I'm just assuming that I will receive little to no TI, but this is obviously based on the state of the property. If it's a dump, then I will definitely expect TI, if it's nice and clean, well then we'll negotiate. The good news is that every space I looked at either already had the proper electrical and water supply or the owner was willing to pay for that in some capacity. This makes sense as all the properties are in commercial or manufacturing zones where appropriate infrastructure is essential.

Another way a lessor can help a tenant get up and running is by "abatement". Abatement is simply where the tenant pays no rent during build out, permit processing (a fun subject in Chicago), equipment delivery and installation, etc. Once you sign a lease, the lease actually begins on an agreed upon date, perhaps 4 to 6 months after build out begins. This allows you, the business owner to not pay rent when you have no revenue coming in, and it allows the owner to get a good, long term tenant who doesn't have to use up their precious capital and risk going out of business. Very negotiable and most owners have been very willing to do that. The ones that won't will not be considered. This especially goes for the ass hat owner (whom was not present) and his douchebag real estate agent (about as personable as a sun dried turd) of a large commercial space on the West Side. The conversation went like this:

"Nick": "So is the owner willing to offer abatement?"

Douchebag agent: "Oh no, he's not willing to let someone use the space without paying any rent."

Me with my sarcasm set to "kill": "You mean like all the rent he's collecting now?" (staring over a vast horizon of emptiness)

The space was very large and very empty and had been vacant for many, many months. No renters in sight. Fortunately this turd was an anomaly. Every other agent or owner we met indicated that there was room for TI and/or abatement. That's just smart.

Another interesting facet of commercial real estate leasing that I was aware of but was reminded by lessors' agents over and over is that the owner will be doing a detailed analysis of my business plan and business capitalization. Owners don't want to invest tens of thousands of dollars in TI or abatement only to discover that you are undercapitalized or have a stupid business idea. One interesting location I looked at had been vacated by the tenant in the middle of the night without warning while the lease was still in force. I assume the owner is in the midst of legal action to recover their losses. So there's snaky-ness on both sides it seems.

One other aspect worth mentioning and closely related to the previous point is a security deposit. Lessors might demand a bigger deposit from a start up such as myself. If that's the case, then I'll expect the lessor to release some of that security deposit back to me over time as the business matures and the owner becomes comfortable with my status as a reliable tenant. My business plan assumes a 6 month security deposit as recommended by "Nick".

Side note: I can't tell you how many lessor agents told me something along the lines of, "There's a lot of you brewery guys looking at spaces." My response was, "Yes, I probably know all of them", which is true. Small world, even in Chicago.

There is much, much more to this commercial real estate leasing game than this, but this is just a primer based on what I've learned in the past couple of weeks. It's a whole new world for me and I will tell you it's been a source of stress, but I'll get through it like everything else. As I learn more I'll share. I'll be very glad when a suitable location is found and the lease is signed.

Oh, and I found about five locations that I liked. I didn't LOVE any of them, but all could work fine, just not ideal. I'm not done searching yet and I'm hoping to find a diamond in the rough. I won't be revealing any location information due to the aforementioned note about other breweries looking as well. I'm here to share as much as possible, but some things are best left on the down low until the time is right.