Buying vs Leasing Commercial Real Estate: Pros and Cons of Each

Many businesses operate out of commercial spaces, whether they be storefronts, factories or offices. If you’re launching a new business, or expanding an existing one, you’ll have to decide whether to rent or buy commercial real estate.

When you buy a property, you can either pay cash upfront or finance it with a loan. With a lease, you rent the property for a set term, at which point you must renegotiate if you wish to continue using it. Several factors go into choosing the right strategy for your business, including cash outflows, recurring costs, tax implications, property value, business equity and more.

Pros and Cons of Buying Commercial Real Estate

Commercial real estate maintains its value over time as long as it's maintained properly — it's a long-term asset. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of buying a piece of commercial property.

Pros of buying commercial property
Cons of buying commercial property
Equity in the property builds over timeUpfront down payment required
Asset value appreciates over timeDifficulty qualifying for financing
Potential for rental incomePrepayment penalties on loans
Tax breaks for interest, depreciation and non-mortgage expensesLiability insurance required
Control of the propertyPotential for loss of liquidity or capital

Pros of Buying

Building equity: If you pay all cash, you own 100% of the property right away. If you take out a loan, your down payment and monthly payments build equity in the property. If you refinance or sell the property, your equity is the difference between the property’s fair market value and the remaining loan balance, and it helps build the overall value of your business.

Appreciating asset: Owning commercial real estate allows you to benefit from capital appreciation — the increase in your property’s value over time. The rate of appreciation varies with the inflation rate, local supply and demand conditions, interest rates and other factors.

Rental income: Typically, a business that buys commercial property occupies at least 51% of it. This is because lenders classify the real estate as an investment property when the ownership share is 50% or less — a factor that makes it harder to qualify for the loan. If you have leftover space, you might want to rent it out to tenants and create a secondary income stream. For instance, if you buy a small building, you might rent out the ground floor to a retailer, restaurant, travel agency or another business.

Tax breaks: You can deduct interest and depreciation on your commercial property as a tax break.

Control: When you own property, you have control over it (within the confines of zoning restrictions), which means you don’t have to negotiate with a landlord if you want to reconfigure the space. You’ll also make fixed monthly mortgage payments, instead of a rent payment that can be changed whenever a lease expires.

Cons of Buying

Upfront spending: Typically, you’d have to make a down payment of 10% to 40% of the property’s value, and you’ll also have to pay for closing costs and origination and appraisal fees. For example, on a $1 million property, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 out of pocket for the down payment and other fees.

Difficulty qualifying for financing: You may have trouble qualifying for a commercial real estate loan with a reasonable interest rate if you or your business cannot get approved for bank financing. While the best commercial real estate loans can have interest rates below 4%, loans made by hard money lenders can have rates of 10% or more. In this case, it may be more cost-effective to lease.

Prepayment penalties: Many commercial real estate loans come with hefty prepayment fees or other penalties specific to commercial real estate, in the form of yield maintenance or defeasance, if you prepay the loan balance.

Liabilities: You are responsible if someone is hurt on your property, which means you’ll have to pay for a liability insurance policy to protect yourself from lawsuits. If you rent out part of the property, you are subject to property manager liability, which will require additional insurance and property upkeep. Furthermore, many loans may require a personal guarantee, which makes you personally liable to repay the loan if your business cannot.

Loss of liquidity or capital: There is always the chance that your property’s value will decline and you might take a capital loss if you decide to sell, which is a drawback. Plus, you may also have liquidity issues since your money would be tied up in the property. To recover your money, you’d have to sell or do a partial cash-out refinance. What’s more, the money tied up in the property could have been used for other opportunities had you leased instead.

Pros and Cons of Leasing Commercial Real Estate

Commercial leases typically run from five to 10 years. You can use the property during the lease, subject to any restrictions built into the lease agreement.

Pros of leasing commercial property
Cons of leasing commercial property
Access to more liquidityNo equity or benefits from appreciation
Fixed monthly costUnable to collect passive income
Tax breaks for property expensesHigh rent expenses
Flexibility to leave the propertyNo control of the space

Pros of Leasing

More liquidity: You tie up significantly less of your cash because you don’t need to make a down payment to move into the space. However, you should expect to pay upfront fees for an attorney, broker, prelease inspection and security deposit.

Fixed monthly cost: When leasing, you generally won’t have to pay for any significant maintenance, repairs or upkeep to the property, though you may be expected to pay for minor repairs. Instead, you’ll know exactly what you need to pay each month without the worry of unanticipated, expensive repair costs.

Tax breaks: You may deduct these costs as incurred: Lease payments, property insurance, property taxes (depending on the lease type), utilities and maintenance. You can deduct your entire lease payment, in contrast to a mortgage’s interest-only deduction.

More flexibility: Qualifying for a lease is oftentimes easier than qualifying for a commercial real estate loan, so you have more options when it comes to picking a space. You can also move when the lease is up without having to sell the property. You might be able to afford to lease a property that is too expensive to buy, which can help you get into a prime or strategic location.

Cons of Leasing

No equity or appreciation: You don’t accumulate any equity when you lease, although some contracts have a lease-to-own commercial property feature that allows you to apply a portion of the rent you’ve already paid toward the purchase of the property. Without equity, you don’t benefit from capital appreciation.

No passive income: You aren’t the landlord and thus cannot collect rent from others, losing secondary income you could gain from owning property.

Rent is expensive: Your monthly rent payments will usually exceed mortgage payments on the same property. The typical triple-net lease agreement makes tenants responsible for monthly retail insurance, property taxes, utilities and maintenance costs. When added to the lease payment, your costs are greater, although after-tax costs depend on the situation.

No control: The lease may have restrictions and even early termination clauses that hamstring the tenant’s ability to control the rental space. You have no control over rent hikes when the lease expires, and if you go out of business, you must continue paying rent or face penalties.

When Should You Buy or Lease Commercial Property?

Typically, it makes more sense to buy if you have enough cash for the down payment and six months’ worth of mortgage payments without causing your business to hit a cash crunch. Purchasing might be a good option if you:

  • Want to rent out part of the space to generate a secondary income stream
  • Plan to build equity in the property
  • Want to reorganize the space as you see fit

On the other hand, leasing might be the right answer if you want:

  • The flexibility to move out at the end of the lease
  • To avoid tying up your money in the down payment
  • More tax deductions on the leasing costs
  • Freedom from the responsibility of maintaining the property, depending on your lease
  • To operate in a space too expensive to purchase

If you are interested in purchasing commercial real estate, you should consider a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) as a first option. The SBA offers two loan programs that can be used for commercial real estate: 7(a) loans and 504 loans. While 7(a) loans are general-purpose loans, 504 loans are specifically designed for the purchase or refinance of commercial property.

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