Sophisticated commercial tenants generally understand that the cost of leasing space is not limited to rent. Most retail and higher end office spaces are net leases and therefore, include a separate charge for Common Area Maintenance and Operating Expenses (CAM). CAM charges are the charges that the landlord incurs for running the common areas of the building, such as utilities, maintenance, taxes, insurance, security and the roof and structure. Depending on the tenant’s size and financial strength, care should be given to negotiating what is included in the definition of CAM and what is specifically excluded. I’ve written on this topic before (see post HERE).

Another factor in negotiating CAM from the tenant’s perspective is limiting the increase from year to year. Again, there are tools to help limit tenant’s exposure to significant increases to CAM charges (discussed in my previous post and also HERE). But once the CAM provisions have been negotiated and included in the lease, tenants can’t forget about them. If they do, tenants could be faced with improper CAM increases or charges.

In my practice, I am asked what to do about large CAM increases all the time. When I have been the one to have negotiated the lease, the process is usually simple and the same. There are 2 questions of concern. First is the reconciliation of the prior year’s CAM. That occurs because landlord has underestimated the actual operating costs for the building for the prior year and tenant is required to “true-up”. The second is the new charge for the coming year. If landlord under budgeted for the prior year, the new charge should factor in the short-fall plus a percentage increase for the coming year so that the tenant will not suffer sticker shock.

The review process is not complicated in a properly drafted and negotiated lease. Within a certain number of days following the end of the calendar year, the landlord should provide an operating statement showing the reconciliation including the original budget and the actual budget. The tenant will have a period of time to object and, if desired, audit landlord’s records to determine accuracy. If tenant’s audit finds a discrepancy over an agreed percentage, landlord pays the cost of the audit and sometimes, a penalty to tenant. If tenant still owes, tenant pays. Tenant also has the right to review the proposed budget. If there was an audit, the audit should give the tenant some insight as to the accuracy of the new budget.

If landlord fails to timely deliver the reconciliation, landlord waives its right to collect any shortfall. CAM, however, should be adjusted up or down, at any time during a calendar year. While tenants might look at this provision as giving a landlord too much discretion, it is better to make incremental changes during the year than to be faced with a large reconciliation at year end which must be paid in lump sum on 15 days’ notice. And, because tenant should have the right to audit, the payments can be recovered if found to be improper.

Sometimes, actually, often, I get leases that I did not review or negotiate. New clients or even existing clients who didn’t think they needed me or my partners to handle what they considered to be a “simple lease”. Recently, a firm client, who signed a lease before we represented him, was presented with a very large reconciliation. It came at the start of the 3rd calendar year of the lease. This was the first time the client had ever received a reconciliation. He should have received 2 reconciliations previously but apparently, the property manager “forgot” to send the prior reconciliations. As a result, there had never before been a true-up. In addition, the property manager had, for the prior 2 years not increased CAM because he “forgot” to bill the client. Now, the client had a large reconciliation and a large increase. The client had never questioned the property manager, but why would he? His rent increases were small and the CAM wasn’t changing. On the other hand, now he faces a very large bill.

How can the client be certain that the property manager isn’t attempting to recoup the lost CAM going back to the first year? The issue is sloppy record keeping.   By not presenting timely reconciliation statements, the lease provides that the true-up is waived for those first 2 years. Therefore, the landlord is only entitled to catch up for last year. But the sloppy property manager never even prepared a budget those first 2 years so there is no documentation to prove that the client underpaid last year or to prove that the reconciliation is only for last year and not a recovery of all lost CAM. The best that property manager and landlord can do is show us tax and insurance bills over the life of the lease to prove that non-controllable expenses.

In hindsight, I have explained to the client, the lease requires that the landlord provide a budget by December 1 of each year. That budget is to include a CAM estimate for the coming year. The estimate should prepare the client for what is to come in the reconciliation statement. Although these are landlord’s obligations, if the tenant does not keep its eyes open and be aware, a big surprise will come at some point. That surprise is likely to turn into a costly fight.

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        After negotiating a good rental rate on a commercial lease, new tenants in Florida often get sticker shock when they calculate their monthly bill after factoring in sales tax. F.S. 212.031 assess sales tax on the consideration paid to occupy the premises. The consideration includes rent, CAM, utilities, real estate taxes and insurance. Florida is the only state in the nation to impose a state wide sales tax on rents. Tenants who have never leased in Florida previously can generally grasp the concept of tax on the rent, but they are puzzled by the tax on CAM and outraged when they are told that they pay tax on real estate taxes. Clearly, this is a double tax. Even the tax on CAM and utilities is a double tax. However, the legislature has determined, and courts have upheld, that the sales tax is a tax on the occupancy and not on the underlying goods. Therefore, there is no double tax.

             There is an exemption to payment of sales tax on utilities. If the landlord is paying taxes on the utilities, invoices CAM separately, has a separate line item for utilities on the invoice and does not mark up the price of the utilities, then there will be no sales tax due.

             Why does Florida tax rent? Simply stated, Florida has no personal income tax and its corporate income tax rate is among the lowest in the United States. Florida needs to look under every cushion to find sources of tax revenues. The state has always preferred to tax tourists and businesses as much as possible. The lease tax is aimed at business and generated $1.5 billion in 2015 and is projected to generate $2 billion in 2020. Yet there are calls to eliminate the tax. Governor Rick Scott (R) proposed a 1/2% reduction in the rate in 2014. The proposal failed. The governor tried again this year, offering a 1% reduction. Again, Governor Scott’s proposal failed. However, other bills were filed. One such bill required the total elimination by phase out of the tax by 2025. The bill never got out of committee.

             The critics of the tax are getting louder. Many business and real estate groups are calling on the legislature to take action in 2017 to phase out the tax. Leading the charge are BOMA, Florida Realtors, CCIM, Florida Gulf Coast Realtors, ICSC, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Florida Retail Federation and NAIOP.

             Proponents of eliminating the tax argue that out of state companies won’t relocate to Florida because of the tax. However, their argument does not address the income tax reasons to come to Florida which could more than offset the sales tax issues, and often do. Also, opponents to elimination of the tax counter that to offset the lost revenue, real estate taxes would go up, which would be passed on to tenants. Landlords might also see the tax savings as an opportunity to raise rents.

             Perhaps a better solution to complete elimination of the rental tax would be to limit the tax to rent only and eliminate it from CAM and other charges. Tenants and industry groups would find it less offensive as the feeling of paying double tax would be off the table. The state would continue to collect the bulk of the tax and the taxpayer would receive a significant tax break. The state could more easily afford to make up this tax cut and Florida could continue to be an attractive place for companies to relocate to.

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        Negotiation of complex real estate documents is, by its nature, adversarial. Each side has to stake out its position and fight for the points that are important to them. Attorneys and brokers, as advocates for their clients, understand this. Each will be zealous in making their arguments. While the substance of negotiation is adversarial, the process of preparing the documents, generally speaking, is not. One side prepares a draft, the other side reviews the draft and provides comments. Revisions are made. The process continues until a final draft is agreed upon.

            As technology has made life simpler, this process has evolved. The person reviewing the document now makes comments and revisions directly on the draft provided using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, or some other compare write or redlining program. When the draft is returned, the preparer can accept or reject the revisions and make additional or new changes. A new Track Change or redline is generated and returned. This process makes it easy for buyers and sellers, borrowers and lenders or landlords and tenants to easily see and discuss specific revisions. Negotiations can still be heated, but the parties can trust the process and that agreed changes at each stage are being made. Technology has made it possible to negotiate documents with little to no personal contact.

             Even before we had this “fancy” computer technology, attorneys usually endeavored to assist opposing counsel in reviewing document revisions from draft to draft. When I started practicing in the 1980’s, we hand marked or redlined our documents at every draft to show clients and opposing counsel everything we changed. And our opponents did the same. We underlined every word, sentence, clause and paragraph we inserted with a red pen (thus, redlining). We put a carrot or asterisk everywhere we deleted language so that the reader could compare the new document to the prior draft. We cautioned that the redline might not be accurate so the reader should carefully review the entire document in case a change was missed. In other words, though we were adversaries, we acted as colleagues, friends, gentlemen (and women). We treated each other with respect.

             So with this background in mind and given that technology makes it easy for everyone today to “help a fella out”, why would anyone in the real estate business today go out of their way to make it difficult to review a document? My latest story involves a client with A++ credit seeking to lease about 65% of a landlord’s class B office building as well as 100% of his vacant lot, adjacent to the building. Client will be doing all of the TI at client’s cost (about $350,000) and the lease is 10 years with 2 five year renewals. The landlord’s representative is his son-in-law. The landlord sent the lease draft in .pdf format. This is not unusual and I requested a copy in Word. We got no response back for over a week until the representative called and demanded our comments. When we again requested a copy in Word, the representative, and then the Landlord told us no such copy existed. We ran the .pdf through a .pdf converter program and I provided my revisions and comments using Track Changes. I will admit, my revisions and comments were substantial. This particular client is in high demand and is used to getting its way.

             We heard nothing for 2 weeks. When we did, the landlord’s representative sent us what we presumed to be a revised lease. Again, it was in .pdf format. There was no redlining or Track Changes.   We were told that this would be the last draft and any remaining changes had to be by addendum. When I asked for a redline or at least a Word version so that I could compare the lease to my draft I was flat out told no.   Why would the landlord do this? What is his purpose other than to be nasty? We can certainly battle it out over the terms that we don’t agree on but why make it difficult (and therefore expensive) for us to review the lease? I am now reviewing the lease line by line and finding that the landlord has made changes to provisions that I did not even comment on. Is the landlord doing this because he is angry that I marked up his original lease?

             I think what this landlord is really telling my client and me is that IF we ultimately sign this lease, we are going to have a very difficult relationship. Everything is going to be a battle. When you’re in a battle over the process of negotiating a document rather than the terms of the document and when you can’t trust the other side to be honorable in the drafting of the document, you probably can’t trust them to honorable in any dealings in the relationship.

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