Whenever dealing with a practice sale or transition, the buying and selling orthodontists have a lot to consider throughout the process, such as purchase price, length of the doctors working together before and after the sale, staffing issues, etc. However, we often see that one of the most important issues takes a back seat in the transition negotiations – the office lease! Whether the office is owned by the selling doctor or by an unrelated third party, we have seen numerous transactions be delayed due to lease issues not being resolved timely.
In the case where the selling doctor owns the real estate, the selling doctor often does not know what the fair market rental rate of the property is. The selling orthodontist often sets the lease rate he/she pays to himself/herself based on tax considerations or mortgage payments, which may be significantly higher or lower than fair market rental rates. We often have sellers tell us during the valuation process or transition negotiations that the rental rate should be $XX per square without really knowing the market, getting advice from a real estate expert, or understanding if this is a gross or net lease rate (“gross” meaning that the landlord pays most or all expenses, such as real estate taxes, insurances, maintenance, and “net” meaning that the tenant pays such expenses). The buyer, often inexperienced in these types of transactions, is generally advised to get the opinion of a local real estate expert to help evaluate the lease rate. The problems arise when the buyer’s expert says the rental rate should be significantly lower than the seller’s expectations. After much more time and research by the seller, it may be discovered that the rental rate he/she can receive from an actual tenant is much less than what he/she initially thought would be paid (or, often worse, if the seller realizes that the lease rate should be increased, which, if requested by the seller, creates other trust issues for the buyer). This situation can create a stumbling block in the transition negotiations and delay the closing of the transition.
The seller doctor, acting as the landlord of the property, has to understand that most buyers will do some research on what the fair market rental rate should be for similar spaces in the area. So, ultimately, the seller has to be reasonable and agree to lease the office at (or very close to) fair market rental rates. Otherwise, it may mean that the seller has to go through negotiations with multiple buyers to either: (1) find the buyer willing to pay a higher than reasonable rental rate, or (2) eventually understand that qualified buyers demand a reasonable rental rate and the rent must be set at market rates. Unfortunately, the latter often occurs after one or more qualified buyers have walked away.
Our advice to selling orthodontists that own the real estate is to do some research on the fair market rental rate for their office spaces when they first begin to consider selling their practices. The sooner these rates are established and supported by actual market research, the smoother and quicker the transition negotiations will go. It also helps in the valuation of the practice because the practice’s value is largely dependent on the income/profit accruing to the owner. If the income/profit used in the valuation is not correct (due to incorrect lease rates), the buyers may also challenge the valuation.
In our next blog post, we will review lease issues that can arise when the office is owned by a third party rather than the selling orthodontist.