renting office space small business

What You Need to Know Before You Lease Commercial Property for Your Small Business

Kathy Simpson

Finding a small business space for rent involves more than finding the perfect location at a price you can afford. Businesses also need to sign a lease, which is a complex document that typically favors the landlord and a business’s success can hinge on a lease’s provisions.

But the terms of a lease are usually flexible, and with a little know-how, you can negotiate terms that work for both yourself and landlord.

Things to Know & How to Negotiate a Commercial Lease Build Out

Finding a small business space for rent is exciting, but leases can be complicated, and they shouldn’t be signed without first understanding all that is included. These are key areas to consider before you sign on the dotted line.

Square Footage

Most commercial leases are quoted on a Rentable Square Foot (RSF) basis. This includes the square footage of your private premises, or Usable Square Footage (USF), plus a pro rata share of the building’s common areas (if shared with other tenants) such as lobbies, staircases, corridors and restrooms. RSF versus USF space is an important distinction to understand, as there will be a difference between the square footage you use and the square footage for which you are charged when you are renting office space for a small business.

When evaluating different properties, measure the USF for yourself or ask the landlord for the dimensions. This will allow you to accurately determine and compare the size and costs of the premises your business will potentially occupy.

How Do Commercial Leases Work? 

Understanding commercial leases is important before renting office space for a small business. The type of lease, lease terms, and early termination provisions are all important parts of a commercial lease and are all relevant for how to negotiate commercial lease build out.

Lease Types 

Commercial leases generally fall into one of three major categories based on how the building’s operating expenses are passed on to tenants:

  • Gross or full-service lease. You pay a flat monthly rate from which the landlord pays all operating expenses, including utilities, property taxes and maintenance. This is a simple and convenient option for tenants. Just make sure you understand the extent of expenses included with the lease. For instance, are cleaning services provided? Is heating and air conditioning available 24/7? Is there a limit on electricity use, and if so, how will you be charged for excess? All such terms should be spelled out in the lease, so there are no surprises down the road.
  • Net lease. In a net lease, taxes, insurance and building maintenance are shared between the landlord and the tenants in one of three ways. With a single net lease, you will pay monthly rent as well as the property taxes, while the landlord pays the rest. With a double net lease, you will pay for insurance along with the taxes and rent. With a triple net lease, you will pay for taxes, insurance and building maintenance costs in addition to the base rent. If you share the building with other tenants, the expenses you assume are pro-rated based on your share of the building’s square footage.
  • Modified gross lease. This type of lease is a cross between a net lease and a gross lease. Usually, you will have a gross lease but will be responsible for certain agreed-upon expenses, such as cleaning services, electricity or minor repairs. The landlord will assume payment for the rest.

Before renting office space for a small business and signing a lease, be sure you understand the type of lease, who will pay for what, and the potential extent of the costs you agree to assume. Ask to see examples of the expenses you will be expected to pay and negotiate caps to minimize unexpected expenditures.

small business space for rent

Lease Term

Most landlords prefer long-term leases of five to ten years, or longer, to keep vacancies to a minimum. You may get the best deal with a long-term lease, but it can become a costly liability if you go out of business or outgrow the space before the term is up. A one-to-two year lease with an option to renew offers the flexibility your small businesses may need—until you’re confident of its success and stability.

Try to work out a cap on any increases in rent that the landlord may expect, whether annually or upon the renewal of your lease, in order to keep the space affordable.

Early Termination

If you need to terminate your lease for any reason, ask to include provisions that allow you to do so as painlessly as possible, including:

  • The right to transfer or “assign” your lease if you sell your business. This allows your business’s new owner to stay in the same space.
  • The ability to sublet all or a portion of your space if you are unable to afford the rent or need to move to a larger space.

Also, consider negotiating any penalties in advance should you need to terminate the lease before the term is up.

Your Neighbors 

Nearby tenants can have a significant impact on your business and can be terms for negotiation. If your business depends on a nearby business to bring foot traffic, a co-tenancy clause will allow you to break the lease if that tenant leaves and isn’t replaced within a certain amount of time.

And if you’d rather not have your landlord rent nearby space to a business that competes with yours, ask for an exclusive use clause.

How to Negotiate a Commercial Lease Build Out and Make Improvements 

If you need to alter the space to suit the needs of your business, negotiate a commercial lease build out and an inclusion of “build-out” provisions in the lease that specify:

  • The improvements that will be made on the small business space for rent
  • Which party will pay for the improvements (in longer-term leases, the landlord may pick up the cost)
  • Who will own the improvements (normally, the landlord does)
  • If the tenant (you) will need to return the space to its original condition when the lease expires

Professional Assistance 

A real estate broker can help you find a small business space for rent and work through the complexities of a lease. Keep in mind, though, that the landlord normally pays the broker’s commission. This means that while there is no cost to you, you could benefit from the unbiased perspective of a lawyer experienced in commercial real estate.

A commercial lease is a legal, binding document. By understanding the terms and evaluating them carefully, you’ll be prepared to negotiate an agreement that not only meets your office space needs but protects your business interests over time.

Next Steps:  You’re busy. We get it. So why not let us do some work for you? By signing up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter, you’ll receive hand-picked articles, How-To Tips and videos covering the latest in small biz tools and trends. We’ll do the research while you spend your time where it counts: managing and growing your business.

11 Responses to "What You Need to Know Before You Lease Commercial Property for Your Small Business"
    • keerthicad | August 4, 2020 at 6:41 am

      Good Article!

    • Michael Walker | December 10, 2019 at 12:51 pm

      This article is right on point. Really important for future tenants to know this stuff. In most cases, I suggest obtaining a broker to represent and assist in finding the right retail space. Once the lease is signed, it’s signed.

      • Chloe Silverman | December 10, 2019 at 2:13 pm

        Thank you for the comment! Great tip.

    • James Borst | December 9, 2019 at 8:29 pm

      It is interesting that landlords prefer leases lasting five years or longer. The company I am working is moving to another office next month and I’ve been packing my boxes. If I owned a business, I’d consider getting a competitive analysis to better understand where the best place to rent commercial space is.

      • Chloe Silverman | December 10, 2019 at 8:56 am

        Thank you for the comment! Great idea.

    • Antony Owens | July 24, 2018 at 11:15 am

      Thanks for the article, it helped me. I think I will turn to the BSO agency.

    • David Garza | July 21, 2018 at 8:39 am

      The person who is going to lease a commercial property should consider the following things in advance.
      1)The condition of the real estate market.
      2)Never turn a blind eye to prospective tenants.
      3)Inspect the zone you are familiar with.
      4)Examine the assess management capability.
      5)Take the property management capability into consideration.
      6)Consider the affairs related to tax.
      7)Consult trustworthy estate frontman.

    • Callum Palmer | March 15, 2018 at 8:50 pm

      Your article does a fantastic job of reminding business owners of what they need to look into before leasing any property for an office or store. I particularly like that your remind them to look into their potential neighbors. After all, you want to make sure that your company’s neighbors won’t give your business a bad name or detract or steal away customers.

    • Carrie Wood | May 16, 2017 at 7:40 pm

      Great article. Pro tip: Most of the time the landlord will agree to remove the “makegood” provision (the tenant’s obligation to demolish the space) at the end of the term. You just have to ensure you ask for it up front!

    • Bernard Clyde | April 19, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      I agree that you should understand the types of leases that are available when looking to lease property for your business. I think it would be wise to research each type of lease to see if it would specifically benefit your business for the amount of time you plan on spending there. It may even be a good idea to consult with a legal professional to get a second opinion on your lease, as well.

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