Recently, a company with 55 locations — a good solid credit tenant — was looking for space in Northeast Ohio. There were three potential locations, and in two of the cases, the landlord was not willing to spend money on tenant improvements. Therefore, the owner of the third property got the deal.

“Oftentimes, we see tenants and landlords butting heads on improvements, but really, at the end of the day, most deals get done with some sort of compromise between the parties,” says George J. Pofok, CCIM, SIOR, senior vice president at CRESCO Real Estate. “On the other hand, there also are times when landlords or tenants will kill the deal and decide financially it’s not worth pursuing.”

Smart Business spoke with Pofok about how tenant improvements are used as a negotiating tool for both landlords and tenants.

What types of tenant improvements are typically made and why?

From an industrial perspective, the typical tenant improvements are the movement of a wall or two or replacing paint and carpet, as these are things landlords have been conditioned to take care of. A couple of other considerations could be replacing any stained or damaged ceiling tiles and making sure all mechanicals are delivered in good working order. These kinds of improvements are usually done because they are low-cost items that are easy to complete and make a big impact. For instance, if you have a manufacturing operation, oftentimes guys in the shop walk over the carpet with their oily boots, which tends to wear it out quicker than it really should.

What is the difference between capital and tenant improvements?

Capital improvements are similar in nature to tenant improvements but usually are bigger building-type improvements such as replacing a roof, repaving a parking lot, or upgrading the heating and air conditioning system. Tenant improvements are often made to the interior and are more cosmetic. For example, there may be 10 private offices and the tenant moving in may only need five and an open bullpen area. An energy efficiency improvement might be replacing lighting fixtures, but if you’re going to waterless urinals, as an example, those are more capital intensive and it’s an added asset, in most people’s eyes, for the building rather than the tenant.

How should tenants negotiate to ensure the best rates on industrial leases?

If you’re an existing tenant, you have more flexibility because you have a past history with the landlord. Since being there, the roof is that much older, the parking lot is that much older and that means more leverage. When you’re a new tenant coming in, there’s less flexibility, especially for capital-intensive improvements. This, however, can depend on the credit of the tenants; obviously if you’re a Fortune 100 company the landlord knows your check is going to be good.

As a tenant, you should:

  • Start the process early on. When you’re touring a property, take careful note of what the space looks like and have all your needs ready upfront first versus having to go back to a landlord again and again.

  • Prioritize so you know what you’re willing to give up. For example, you might want carpet changed in all the offices, to add a couple of additional private offices and have the warehouse painted white. Maybe painting the warehouse isn’t as critical to you, but the other two items are; then one of them can be a gift back to the landlord to get what you really want.

  • Know cost estimates of what you’re requesting. If you’re going to ask for too much, then the landlord may take a tougher stance from the very get-go.

Another tenant tool is to pay for improvement expenses upfront and have the landlord amortize it via free rent or reduce the base rent.

It’s important to be fair and reasonable as you’re negotiating because landlords want to feel that they get a victory. It can be something small, but as long as they feel like they won part of the battle, then they will be more receptive to working with you.

How are the current economy and market influencing negotiations?

With landlords still hungry for tenants, they want to show to their lender a higher base rate but could still spend money to keep the tenant happy with free rent or additional dollars for miscellaneous improvements. Therefore, if your landlord wants to keep a higher base rate, you can typically ask for more improvements.

Despite this, tenants need to be aware of how the market is starting to change. As manufacturing took a hit over the past few years, landlords needed to be creative to backfill spaces that hit the market as a result of the recession. Now, the market is getting to a point where it has recovered and certain product types are more difficult to find. It’s been a tenant market, but now it’s just as favorable to the landlord.

The vacancy rate has decreased significantly. Right now, it is hovering around 8.3 percent, which is extremely healthy for the overall Northeast Ohio/Cleveland market. A year ago, the vacancy rate was 9.6 percent.

Leasing rates are not changing yet. Historically, they have remained very stable and consistent. The hope is as the vacancy rate declines, property owners will start seeing a slight increase in the flat values. This situation is semi-unique to the Cleveland market. When everyone had the big boom, our boom in the Cleveland market wasn’t significant so we don’t have as far to fall. The base rates are within 5 to 10 cents of where they have been over past five years.


George J. Pofok, CCIM, SIOR, is a senior vice president at CRESCO Real Estate. Reach him at (216) 525-1469 or

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Published in Cleveland