Imagine you’re a practice owner, and your practice currently has a 12-year history of consistently grossing $1.5 million—and is actually on track to earn upwards of $2 million this year! You have three exam rooms and three certified veterinary technicians, and you’ve just hired an ambitious associate veterinarian to bring your total up to three full-time associates, with plenty of support staff. Your practice’s operations are clearly excellent and the camaraderie is there but, you’re ready. You’ve decided that enough of your life has been dedicated to the prosperity of your practice and you want to enjoy the remainder of your life with your family. You have made the decision to sell your practice.

You meet with an attorney, create your practice’s profile, and garner the attention of many corporate consolidators (CC) and private contractors (PC). Prior to entertaining any offers, your attorney asks you about your plans, including whether you’d like to remain involved in the practice, post-sale. You respond, “I think I want to retire altogether. I love my practice and my staff, and I’ll visit from time to time, but I’m pretty sure I want to spend the rest of my time with my family.” Your attorney then asks about the property and you are at a loss; you thought that once you sold the practice, the property would be sold, too. Your attorney informs you that this is not the case and sends you home with homework to complete, something you haven’t had to do in quite some time. Now you have to ponder about what you want to do with your real estate if you sell your practice.  

Do you want to relinquish or retain ownership of the real estate?

This is the first question that any facility owner who also owns the property needs to answer because this will dictate what language will be used in letters of intent (LOI). You’ll need to determine whether you want to retain the ownership of the property and lease it to the future buyer or sell the property.

If you’re looking to relinquish ownership of the real estate, then you’ll need to determine how and when this will change hands—and if this is your plan, then the remainder of this article will be purely informational. On the other hand, if you want to continue to retain ownership of the property and become a landlord, then    you should continue reading.

As a third scenario, if you currently lease your property from a third-party landlord, then your responsibility is to inform the buyer about your current lease’s terms and help to facilitate the transfer of the contract from your name to theirs.

What’s the composition of the lease?

Assuming, from this point on, that you’re the owner of your property and you want to lease it to the buyer, here’s what might happen next. Typically, the buyer will present you with a drafted lease with their terms—which likely represents their interests—and you will have to negotiate from there. Since this will be a steady stream of income for you, we’ve provided you with information to maximize the revenue you’ll receive.

For clarification purposes:

“Buyer”/“Tenant” = Buyer of your practice; “Seller”/”You” = Practice Seller & Property Owner/Landlord

Lease Terms & Renewals

When discussing the value of a lease to buyers, you’ll have to think long term, literally. Most buyers, especially the CCs, express interest in having an initial 10- to 15-year lease to retain a firm grasp on the practice’s property and to ensure longevity. This may differ for PCs. You could add more value to the lease by giving the buyer options to renew at five or ten-year increments. This assures continued operations for the practice, allows for early renewal negotiations, and makes it easier for you to refinance the property, if need be. Now, depending upon your terms, you should determine how much you will charge the buyer for rent. Typically, rent is calculated as the sum of the base rent and additional rent, but you should also consider the valuation of your property. That’s because the fair market value (FMV) of your property may help to drive the base rent that you set for the buyer.

Fair Market Value

Agreeing to a base rent can represent a risk for both you and the buyer. Here’s why. Your initial lease term would be dictated by the FMV or, rather, the price your property would sell for on the open market; however, the FMV excludes the value your practice adds to the property. Zach Goldman, owner of the real estate investment trust (REIT) company, Handin Holdings, states that the valuation of a piece of real estate is therefore equal parts of art and science. It involves noting the global picture along with (1) the structure of the specific building, (2) the real estate market of the area, (3) the quality of the practice’s operations, and (4) the economic reliability of the tenants (i.e., will they be able to pay rent).

Plus, how you value your property isn’t necessarily how others will perceive its value. As a practicing veterinarian and owner of the practice, you’ve undoubtedly worked tirelessly to ensure the prosperity of your clinic. The sacrifices you’ve made and the time you’ve spent developing the practice to bring it where it is today, though, doesn’t necessarily add much value to the property itself. Daniel Feinberg, vice president of finance at the REIT company, TerraVet Solutions, notes that a common misconception they face when speaking to veterinary practice owners is that they are often infusing their personal experiences into the property value. He advises all future practice sellers to work with REITs, like TerraVet, to help determine the value of their properties from an objective lens; this way, as a seller, you can work on adding value to your property prior to entertaining offers.

Once you’ve appropriately valued your property, you can then determine how much you should charge for your initial term of the buyer’s lease. We advise that you read the terms of the lease provided by the buyer very carefully; CCs will typically request a “reset to FMV” once it’s time for them to renew their lease. This can effectively eliminate cash flow certainty during the renewal periods and, clearly, this does not always work in your favor. Whether or not this will be advantageous to you is highly dependent upon a number of factors, including your geographic location. Typically, if an FMV reset is included, then an appraisal will be needed. If you aren’t sure whether this would negatively or positively impact you, you could create appraisal rules and limitations to include within your lease. You’ll want to answer questions that add clarity to and substantiates the FMV reset; these are questions such as:

  • What appraisal method will be used and who will be conducting the appraisal? Your choice or buyer’s choice?
  • How will the future rent be determined? Will it be based on the property’s best or highest value?
  • Will the FMV-based rent take into consideration the practice’s value?

These are only a few questions that will need to be answered and you can find more information by contacting your real estate attorney or a REIT company.

Base Rent

Base rent is the amount charged to the buyer to simply occupy the premises. It can be calculated in a variety of ways, with the two most common methods being the following:

  1. Based upon a percentage of a tenant’s gross revenues: This will complicate the lease because the lease parties need to agree on (a) the method used to calculate the practice’s gross revenues; and (b) a process to resolve disagreements.
  2. Based on dollars per square feet, with “square feet” able to be defined in a number of ways: Most commonly, leases charge a dollar per foot of either the “rentable space” or the “rented space.” The former results in a higher rent, but will likely be refuted—and, therefore, the latter will be more easily accepted. No matter what standard is used, you will need to clearly define square footage.

Whether you choose the first or second option to calculate base rent, you will likely need to negotiate specific.

“Additional rent,” meanwhile, comprises all other costs, usually related to the facility’s operations, that your buyer is required to pay you in addition to the base rent. Such costs could be a security deposit (often one to three months’ rent) and reimbursing the landlord for property taxes (monthly or quarterly).  In most cases, the buyer doesn’t pay the property taxes directly; this would typically be handled by you and then you would be reimbursed by the buyer. You could, however, require the buyer to pay you an estimate of property taxes monthly or quarterly in advance, subject to an annual reconciliation mechanism. This would consolidate the buyer’s payments while concurrently allowing you to receive a portion of the property tax amount in advance.

Types of Net Leases

Briefly, net leases help to define the relationship and responsibilities between the buyer and seller. The type of net lease—single, double, or triple—determines whether the buyer will pay, in addition to the rent, any of the following three expenses: property taxes, property insurance premiums or maintenance costs. You can equate the type of lease with the amount of responsibility, in addition to the rent, that the buyer will have. Single net lease requires the buyer to be responsible for property taxes, a double net lease will require the buyer to pay for taxes and insurance premiums, and a triple net lease will require the buyer to pay for all three additional expenses.

The goal is to minimize your responsibilities as a landlord as much as possible. Therefore, most leases are triple net leases. Reducing your responsibilities increases the likelihood that the buyer will negotiate with you on topics like rent during the initial term of the lease, liability insurance requirements, and a host of other things. Your best option would be to require a triple net expenses lease while only being required to cover the maintenance and replacement costs of the property’s structural components, such as a roof replacement or maintenance of the property’s foundation.

Annual Rent Escalations

Rent increases can be considered the norm in most veterinary practice leases today. These escalations are usually based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is essentially an average price measured over a time range. The CPI allows for you to adjust the buyer’s rent to accommodate the price change of the current real estate market. Most commonly, the escalation is represented by a percentage increase over a specified period of time. Although you are able to determine a percentage and offer it within the lease, we typically see a two to three percent increase annually. You can think of this as a compounding scheme whereas you will establish the base rent for the initial year of the lease, and each year after the buyer will pay an additional percentage. To illustrate, here is an example:

You’ll have the buyer pay a base rate of $25,000 annually during your initial ten-year lease. However, you will add the caveat that states how there will be a two percent escalation that will be applied to the base rate annually. This type of increase would result in the tenant paying nearly an additional $41,000 at the conclusion of their ten-year lease term.

This provides a better, more stable and predictable method of forecasting what income you will receive from the buyer. Ideally, you’ll consider their rent in conjunction with the buyer’s responsibilities as a tenant, so you need to also consider what kind of net lease you’d prefer for the buyer to have.

Financial Reports

In addition to your lease, you can also request an annual financial report of the practice. While most landlords don’t request this information, there are many reasons why you should. Annual financial reports allow for you to gauge the operations of the practice and determine whether the buyer will be financially self-sustaining. When requesting the financial reports from the buyer, they should typically provide you with a balance sheet, profit and loss statement, and a statement that acknowledges any changes in the financial position as well as any supplemental details to explain the change. These combined reports will provide an overall view of the financial well-being of the buyer, as well as assure you of their financial stability throughout the lease term(s).

The Guaranty

This seems like a very clear and straightforward issue, right? We generally assume that the buyer will provide the guaranty, but who exactly is the buyer? In this day and age when most of the CCs are owned by a larger corporate parent, you have to ensure that the buyer who is purchasing your practice can provide a guaranty for your lease. The company backing your lease could range from, say, Midwestern Pet Hospital, a single hospital with a limited, regional reach, to Animal Hospital Operations, a generally well-known company with multiple hospital ownerships. If you did your due diligence, you would discover that Animal Hospital Operations is owned by Krispy Kreme, a company with the financial assets to assure you they are committed.

In order for Krispy Kreme to provide you with stability, using that example, you would need to confirm that their name is listed in the lease agreement. In comparison, a review of financial statements shows that Midwestern Pet Hospital has had a fluctuating history of financial stability and only within the past three years has begun producing competitive revenue. Which buyer would you choose to back your lease? You’d likely selected Krispy Kreme and rightfully so. The point here is that you should always ensure that the buyer can either provide a corporate guaranty from their parent company or can provide enough evidence to convince you that they can uphold tenant responsibilities and, essentially, foot the bill.

Assignments

An assignment clause in a lease essentially allows for the tenant to transfer the lease, and all associated tenant responsibilities, to a different entity. However, this is typically an area that you as the landlord will want to specify and limit. Commonly, CCs like to freely transfer their leases to any affiliated entities, which would almost certainly diminish the value of your property for multiple reasons. First, if the buyer was allowed to sublet or freely assign the lease, then they would receive the revenue generated from the sublet, not you. Second, if the tenant isn’t up to par, then the value of the property itself could be driven downward. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to add provisions to prevent this free assignment. For example, you can negotiate by stating that the buyer can only assign their lease to a guarantor with a net worth that is equal to or greater than the existing guarantor. This ensures that your property’s value does not decrease and that the tenant responsibilities are financially accounted for.

Are there any outstanding rights of first refusal or offer (ROFR/ROFO) with your real estate?

The ROFR and ROFO concept can be off-putting for many buyers and could severely diminish the quantity of offers you may receive. To explain, there are many variations on a theme when discussing ROFRs and ROFOs, but they all center on the fact that, as the seller, if you receive an offer to purchase the property, you are legally bound and required to send notice of the full offer to whomever holds the ROFR/ROFO. If the offer is incomplete or if you don’t give the holder sufficient notice of the offer, you have now made yourself, as the seller, vulnerable to one of two scenarios:

  • being sued for failing to protect the rights of the ROFR holder
  • losing the interest of the buyer because the ROFR holder didn’t respond or didn’t receive the notice of the full offer with enough time to respond

In some instances, there’s the ROFO, which is currently defined as “an offer made in good-faith” by the seller. This means that the seller will inform the holder of a reasonable offer before any official listing of the property or entertaining of such offer. The holder can either refuse or accept the offer. With a right of first refusal, the ROFR holder can opt to match or counter the buyer’s offer. This leaves you vulnerable to losing your initial buyer’s interest because the buyer won’t, or can’t, raise their offer to purchase the estate. Your practice facility’s future is subject to the demands of the holder. You can choose to accept their offer or remain the landlord. As you can see, the impact of the ROFO/ROFR can be quite significant; therefore, you should carefully review any and all documents for such a clause.

What are your expectations of the buyer?

As a practice owner preparing for the next step, it is important that you think about your lease, your practice, and your future, post-sale. You have to determine what responsibilities you are expecting the buyer to take on and be willing to negotiate those from the very beginning. Knowing what terms of your lease are non-negotiable from your perspective before you begin the bidding process could prove to be advantageous because you can provide them with your terms and negotiate from there. With respect to the lease obligations, the buyers can’t change the terms of the deal or alter the purchase price later in the process because you’ve already informed them of your lease terms and have negotiated the obligations at the start. Informing your buyers of what the lease terms are in the beginning and having that full transparency gives you the most leverage to guide the conversation how you see fit.

So, what does all of this mean?

There are numerous points to consider prior to the sale of your practice to prepare you for negotiations.  The process of selling your practice can be long, and it can easily be extended if you have not addressed your personal, practice and/or property needs. Many sellers are not prepared to deal with a facility lease when they sell their practice, but doing your homework now can give you the knowledge and confidence to negotiate a lease with your buyer that will benefit you for years to come.

WORKS CITED:

  1. Lacroix, Charlotte. “Property Lease Dangers, Part I” | Real Estate, 2012, Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc. http://veterinarybusinessadvisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Property_Lease_Dangers_Part-1_2012.pdf
  2. Lacroix, Charlotte. “Property Lease Dangers, Part II” | Real Estate, 2012, Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc. http://veterinarybusinessadvisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Property_Lease_Dangers_Part-2_2012.pdf
  3. Lacroix, Charlotte. “Negotiating a Commercial Lease” | Real Estate, 2018, Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc. https://veterinarybusinessadvisors.com/negotiating-a-commercial-lease/
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  7. Stein, Joshua “The Most Important Issue in Every Ground Lease: Rent Resets and Redeterminations, Fair Market and Otherwise” New York State Bar Association | Real Estate, 2018, http://www.nysba.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=86403
  8. McCormick, David; Mamalis, Leslie. “Monitoring Practice Profitability” Veterinary Hospital Managers Association 2013 Annual Conference, https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.vhma.org/resource/resmgr/imported/MonitoringPracticeProfitablityfinal.pdf
  9. Bank, Live Oak. “Veterinary Practice Acquisitions Guide 2018” Veterinary Practice Acquisitions | Acquisitions, 2018, https://www.liveoakbank.com/wp-content/themes/LOB2017/assets/downloads/Live-Oak-Bank_Vet-Acquisition-Guide.pdf
  10.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Writing an Escalation Contract Using the Consumer Price Index”. Real Estate. November 2012. Beyond the Numbers, Volume 1, Number 19. https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-1/pdf/writing-an-escalation-contract-using-the-consumer-price-index.pdf