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Ground Control

Ground Control
Owners and developers unearth opportunities through creative land leases.
by Philip F. Himovitz, CCIM

Commercial real estate developers and investors often favor total fee ownership of income property. The propensity to own - and the emotions attached to it - sometimes can result in misguided decisions and strategies and lost opportunities. Relinquishing ownership of income property is really a question of when, not if.

Once developers move beyond the notion of ownership as an investment goal, new opportunities that may not have been visible before, such as ground leases, become apparent. In its most basic form, a ground lease, or land lease, separates the ownership of land from the ownership of the improvements on the land, such as an office building or a shopping center. The landowner leases the land to the developer of the improvements, who pays rent for use of the land. Typically ground leases are long term and include set rent escalations, foreclosure rights should the lessee default, and a reversionary right, which means improvements on the property revert to the landowner at the end of the lease term. While such lease terms do not particularly favor developers, ground leases offer some distinct advantages.

The two most prevalent types of ground leases are subordinated and unsubordinated. Each provides benefits that can enhance the developer's yield and turn dismal or modest returns into more attractive and risk-mitigated ventures. They also give developers the opportunity to involve multiple partners without a formal partnership agreement.

Ground leases transfer control - not ownership - of a property and for the landowners are considered one of the most secure forms of real estate investment. But landowners are still investors and may be open to developers who offer them a stake in the improvements erected on their land.

Lease Structures

In a subordinated ground lease, the landowner offers the land as collateral for the developer's mortgage, giving the landowner a significant stake in the development risk. The subordinated ground lessor is considered a secondary lender with junior rights set behind the primary lender, usually a bank or other financial institution.

Normally the ground lessor has a future claim on the improvements, as most ground leases require improvements to the land to revert to landowners at the end of the lease. As such, ground lessors consider the downstream value of the improvements in establishing a rental rate. On the other hand, a ground lease that provides for the removal of any improvements at the end of the lease, such as relocatable metal buildings, modulars, portable plants, or parking lot appurtenances, would factor that eventuality into the rate as well.

The subordinated ground lease rental rate usually is a few percentage points above long-term permanent loan rates applied to the land value, which would correctly calibrate the risk-reward equation, including the risk of foreclosure, for the ground lessor.

The unsubordinated ground lease offers the landowner a more desirable role, comparable to that of the primary lender. This makes long-term permanent conventional financing more challenging for the developer, since the lender must assume the risk of lease termination and default. However, due to the senior position of the unsubordinated ground lessor, the ground lease rate can be lower and therefore much more attractive for the developer. The permanent lender recognizes the ground lease payments as an annual expense that will be factored into its loan underwriting. In total, the cash required in the deal by the developer is reduced while his yield is increased.

In both cases, the developer's requirement for cash in the deal is reduced because of the value that the landowner brings to the deal. The reduction in cash usually required causes the investment yield to increase when the income stream is extended into the future. The value of the future cash stream will be determined by a threshold discount rate, resource availability, and underlying assumptions - the same general market and economic model assumptions that apply to fee-simple land ownership deals.

Other considerations include the length of the remaining lease term, reversion covenants, and extension and renewal rights and options. Occasionally the ground lessor will participate in the cash flows by applying a lease rate as a percentage of the income that the rental property produces. This strategy can have the positive effect of averting a monetary default in the event of a "dark" project. It also has the positive effect of mitigating the risk that a first mortgage lender perceives if the lease is unsubordinated. For example, if prevailing long-term interest rates are 6 percent, a comparable subordinated ground rental rate might be 8 percent, whereas an unsubordinated lease might be priced at par or 6 percent.

Ground Lease Benefits

The potential to form a joint venture with a building developer can be attractive to the primary ground lessor. The yield values are enhanced by the security of the future improvements. Provisions against wasting the property, requirements to maintain the improvements, cure and notice rights, certain reasonable approval conditions, and the ubiquitous hazardous materials covenants are standard.

Clearly, an unsubordinated lease presents possibilities that offer an alternative investment vehicle that provides security to patient investors and can be traded, sold, or transferred in creative ways. For example, tax-deferred 1031 strategies are possible by trading into an income investment as a sandwich ground lessee-ground sublessor. The usual threshold is that the lease term be greater than 25 years. Since these instruments can take on the color of a security, real estate professionals who enter into these deals should carefully document all aspects of the transaction and seek advice from qualified securities professionals.

In addition, opportunities exist in some municipal ground lease situations wherein under certain conditions, property taxes are completely or virtually eliminated. Likewise other tax benefits accrue to these sanctuaries because of the reversionary character of building improvements and the incentive-rewarding jobs creation. These areas of investment can offer a spectacular advantage over neighboring competing properties in pricing and yield.

Lease term and length influence the acceptability of ground lease deals. The current climate is cautionary because of the parochial need to own; however, institutional managers realize that it is all factored into the risk and yield and accept the challenge with appropriate lease drafting and terms that are favorable to the asset managers' objectives. The environment is changing as the pressure for yield performance and risk mitigation goes begging. The challenge is pioneering in an area where heretofore only the creative and adventurous have explored.

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Philip F. Himovitz, CCIM, is president of Himovitz Properties in Scottsdale, Ariz. Contact him at (480) 483-3363 or

Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz., a converted former military airport, offers ground leases to both aeronautical and non-aeronautical businesses.

Cimarron X, an office and warehouse space built on Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz., is subject to unsubordinated ground leases.
photo credits: Philip F. HImovitz,CCIM


Ground Lease vs. Fee-Simple Ownership

Many of today's developers and investors believe that owning the land on which their investment sits is the most ideal scenario. However, the following example illustrates the yield advantages leasing land may have for some development projects.


Under a fee-simple ownership scenario, the cash required to develop a 20,000-square-foot building is $574,118. The same building developed under a ground lease scenario requires only $432,941. While this represents a 24.6 percent advantage for the ground lease deal, the overall yield and challenge of a secondary sale still has to be investigated. With a sufficiently long lease term remaining, the before-tax cash flow yield is 28.8 percent and 31.0 percent, respectively.

The yield outcomes are comparable and in this scenario favor the lease deal. Land and building costs, escalations such as Consumer Price Index hikes, and debt underwriting criteria all influence the investment decision and conclusion.

This example does not present conclusive proof that in all cases a ground lease deal is the better option, but rather encourages commercial real estate professionals to explore the possibilities and opportunities ground leases present.

When tax consequences are considered, the ability to deduct ground lease payments from the operations equation presents the developer with a new dimension that favors or, at a minimum, gives parity to the ground lease deal. The ability to deduct ground lease payments from income in the tax computation favors that scenario. (See tables for a cost analysis.)












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