Dentist Leases: Inflation Risks and a Changing Economy

Dentist Leases: Inflation Risks and a Changing EconomyBusiness leases were very different back when my father was a mall developer.

As I described last week, he opened a shopping center in Canada where he prioritized the landlord-tenant relationship. As a landlord, he worked hard to help his tenants achieve success.

Unfortunately, he was unable to cope with the rising costs of operating the shopping centers due to inflation in the 1980’s. Today, malls, strip centers and medical/dental buildings are primarily managed by institutional owners.

Tenants are no longer viewed as collaborating business interests; now tenants are commodities to be bought, sold, discarded or traded in favor of the mall owner’s and mall stockholders’ bottom-line.

Dental Leases Used To Be Simple

The most direct result of the inflationary period of the early 1980s was the advent of – and now widespread use of – the “net” form of lease, commonly referred to as the “net lease” or Triple Net Lease Agreement (NNN). In fact, many tenants cannot even recall a time when the NNN Lease wasn’t in effect.

However, prior to the 1980s, most dental leases were, in fact, of a “gross” nature. Under the Gross Lease Agreement the dentist paid one rent, which covered all of the costs a landlord might incur, including such things as parking lot maintenance, insurance, repairs, etc., leaving plenty of room for landlord debt service and profit. Most gross lease rents were set to rise by about 3.0% annually, because inflation for the previous 30 years averaged about 3.2% per annum during the post-War era,1 making such an agreement simple to manage for both landlord and his dental tenant.

But when the costs of operating malls and other commercial properties unexpectedly and quickly began to rise as a result of higher inflation, the mall and property owners were forced to absorb the additional expenses, thereby cutting into their profit margins.

This forced mall owners such as my father to pay both higher mortgage rates and rising operating costs. When inflation was finally contained at the expense of the mall owners rather than the retailers and shoppers, it forced many early developers into bankruptcy and malls into foreclosure.

The Triple Net Lease Becomes Standard

When the foreclosed shopping centers were ultimately resold to other interests, the new shopping center owners applied the lessons they had learned from their bankrupt predecessors, and redrafted their lease agreements to transfer inflation risks to their tenants through the NNN Lease.

As the long-term tenant agreements of the 1970s began to expire in the 1990s, the landlords would not renew the previous gross lease agreements unless they were revised to their current standard NNN Lease form, which incorporates both rising rents set to Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases and direct flow through of all operating costs to their tenants along with hefty admin fees.

The result will make managing through the next inflationary period considerably more difficult for retailers and other tenants, just as it did for the early mall developers in the 1980’s.

Dentists Now Take the Risk

During the economic boom years of the 2000s, the typical landlord form lease agreement evolved in terms of both their complexity and sophistication, with the bulk of new risks being borne by the tenant.

However, few – if any – dental tenants really understood or appreciated the potential inflationary risks they were being asked to absorb should the economy enter into another inflationary period. For many, it wasn’t even a business consideration, as most dentists had not operated a practice through the period of high inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, and those that did have since retired.

Further, the dentists could only secure good locations through a highly-charged competitive environment, encouraged by the landlords, and often manipulated by the brokerage community.

The result, in my view, is the creation of conditions now set for the “perfect inflationary storm.” I’ll describe what I mean – and what you can do to protect yourself – next week.

Bibliography1 Rattner, Steven (January 5, 1981) “Federal Reserve Sees Little Growth in ’81 with Continued High Rates,” New York Times

About Lewis Gelmon

Lewis Gelmon is a professional lease negotiator, educator advocate for the dental community and lives in San Diego, CA, with over 22 years of experience in the field. He can be reached for questions or comments at or 760-479-9704.


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