Round One: Commercial Tenant Lease Options During COVID – Subleasing Your Unused Space

Are you currently a tenant leasing space in a commercial (retail, office, industrial usually) property with your business suffering significant losses? If so, do you want to know what your options are and what you should be doing about it now and in the future? This is the first part of a series of articles I will be writing on this subject so make sure to tune in for all of them shortly. Upcoming articles will cover: when not to pay rent to your landlord, when/how to terminate your lease early, and other relevant options.

Let’s start with what a tenant would normally do if they didn’t pick a course of action with any risks of legal action by the landlord, such as terminating a lease or not paying rent. Subleasing part of your space or assigning all of it are two viable options.

Under a sublease, you would lease part of your space and you are still the tenant, but become your new subtenant’s landlord which is called a “sublandlord”. You could also sublease all of your space, but this isn’t as common. You still pay your rent to the landlord normally, and you collect rent from your “subtenant” based on the agreement you have made between you and your subtenant. You and the subtenant can agree to pretty much whatever you want to on lease terms as long as it doesn’t violate the main lease between you and your landlord.

Subleasing sounds simple enough but here are some issues to consider that make it more complicated: a) The subtenant’s business use should be compatible with yours because if it isn’t, it could be very disruptive to your business; b) You should have a very good written sublease agreement prepared by a real estate attorney or possibly your commercial real estate broker if he is qualified and should try not to create or change the form on your own. This is because if something were to go wrong with the relationship, and the subtenant creates a problem (not paying, disruptive, etc.) you want to make sure you are on solid legal ground to evict them and make them pay for any damages they cause you; c) You should check out your subtenant’s criminal and financial background thoroughly just like your prudent landlord did with you and make sure you get enough security deposit and/or personal guaranty but get professional help when making this determination from a CPA or your commercial broker if he is qualified to do so; d) You should market your sublease space to reach the widest audience you can. This will usually require costs (advertising, commission, time, and energy) so it’s best to hire a commercial broker to do so as you simply will not have the same audience reach or expertise that the broker does and this broker will bring you more quality options than you can find on your own and lease your space faster.

Switching to an assignment works somewhat like a sublease but an assignment is normally done when leasing the entire space to someone new rather than just part of it like through a sublease. Your new replacement tenant is called the “assignee” and you become the “assignor”. The assignee pays rent to the landlord directly as opposed to paying you like the sublease example above. However, this assignee pretty much takes your place and assumes your existing lease without making changes to it, although it is still possible to have changes made, your landlord has to agree, and there normally isn’t an incentive for your landlord to do so. You remain on the hook under the terms of your original lease like a guarantor would, so if your assignee defaults on the lease and doesn’t cure it then you will be responsible to do so. This will result in you having to pay any rent difference each month to your landlord that your new assignee doesn’t pay if this assignee is paying less than you were.

Both of the above options normally require landlord approval so check your lease carefully in the applicable sections and make sure you do what it says. Your landlord can usually decline a request to sublease or assign your lease based on reasonable grounds. Reasonable grounds can be items like bad financials or a criminal record, too many employees, business use not compatible with other tenants in the building, etc.

Each situation is unique and needs to be figured out carefully but you have to know and consider all of your options so you can pick the best one.   I have settled these types of matters both as a landlord and tenant hundreds of times so I can assist you if you need help so please contact me here:  

David Massie

DJM Commercial Real Estate


David Massie