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Assigning a commercial property lease to another business

In order to grow or react to market conditions your business may need to quickly leave its current premises. If your business rents the premises but there is still time left to run on the lease, what can you do?

A common solution is to transfer your lease to someone else. This process is called ‘assigning a lease’. In this article, we describe how this process operates and what potential problems you may need to overcome. If you need help in this area, our friendly commercial property experts can help.

How to assign a lease

‘Assigning’ a lease simply means transferring your lease to another person so that they become the new tenant. Once the assignment has taken place the lease continues to exist and the new tenant becomes liable for all of the tenant’s obligations in the lease.

The first step is to find someone who may want to take over the lease (they are known as ‘the assignee’). Aside from being happy with the rent that is being charged, the assignee will want to review the lease to ensure that it does not contain any onerous or unacceptable terms. This process will be very similar to the one your solicitor carried out when you negotiated the lease in the first place, except that as the assignee will be taking over the existing lease they will have little or no opportunity to change its terms and will therefore have to be happy with it as it stands.

If the lease contains terms which are generally unacceptable in commercial property leases or specifically adversely affect the ability of the new tenant to use the property as they wish, you may have problems in assigning the property. It is therefore worth knowing before you start marketing your lease just what it does or does not allow. For example, it is no good marketing a warehouse to factory owners if it specifically forbids industrial use.

In addition, most tenants will want to carry out the same due diligence process as if it were purchasing a commercial property or negotiating the lease at outset. This usually involves raising queries with the local authority and utility companies as well as finding out about environmental and similar issues. This takes time so do not expect to be able to transfer the lease instantly.

The second step, once an assignee is found and they are happy to take on the lease, is to actually transfer (‘assign’) the lease. Generally this will be done using a Land Registry form known as a TR1. If the lease is for less than 7 years, then the lease can be assigned by using a deed of assignment. Both these documents have the same effect and will generally be executed by both you as the current tenant and the assignee.

In theory, you can assign your lease to whoever and whenever you like. However, most landlords are not willing to allow the tenant such freedom and therefore write into the lease restrictions on to whom a lease can be assigned and on what basis. In most cases, the landlord will be required to consent to the assignment before it can go ahead. This is where most of the practical problems arise as we explore in more detail below.

When and why to assign a lease

A tenant will generally look to assign its lease when it no longer requires use of the property but there is still some time before the lease comes to an end. For example, your business may have taken a five-year lease, but after two years you need to move. Unless the lease includes break clauses, you would have to continue to pay the rents and comply with the lease terms for the remaining three years of the lease term. By assigning the lease you can dispose or at the very least reduce that liability. 

If there is less than a year remaining of the lease to run, it may be more difficult to find someone who wants to take the lease for a short period of time, so in those circumstances it may be worth continuing to trade from the existing property until the lease comes to an end itself.

A few common examples of why you may wish to assign your lease are that:

  • You may have agreed to sell your business and the structure of the transaction requires the lease to be assigned to the purchasers;
  • Your business may not be trading as well as hoped and you are unable to keep up with rent payments or you may simply need smaller premises;
  • You may find that the property is no longer situated in a convenient place and may wish therefore to relocate the business; or
  • Your business may have grown faster than anticipated and requires bigger premises from which to trade.

Is a licence to assign needed?

Most landlords are primarily concerned with the income they earn from the properties they rent out. It is important to them that the tenants they rent to:

  • Are able to pay the rent in full and on time;
  • Keep the property in a good state of repair so that the property can be easily relet when the tenant leaves; and
  • Behave in such a way as not to adversely affect the landlord’s ability to rent other properties it may own nearby.

It is for this reason that most landlords will seek to control who you can assign your lease to and prevent you from assigning your lease without your landlord’s consent.

Whether your landlord’s consent to an assignment (by way of a licence to assign) is required depends on the terms of the lease you are seeking to assign. Most leases will have some restrictions. It is only if the lease does not include any restriction on assignment, or includes restrictions but no requirement to obtain the landlord’s consent to an assignment, that no licence to assign will be required.

Although the detailed provisions can look intimidating, most assignment clauses simply require the landlord to agree that it believes the assignee to be able to meet its obligations and if it does so to formally consent to the assignment. The landlord is also usually required by statute not to unreasonably withhold or delay giving that consent. A licence to assign is the document used to evidence that the landlord has granted its consent to an assignment as required.

Note: if you feel your landlord is not co-operating, you should explore the options for tenants in our article on landlords unreasonably withholding consent.

You should ask for the landlord’s consent as soon as possible so as not to delay matters, as the landlord only has to deal with your request within a reasonable time and even then only once you have provided all the information the landlord needs in order to reach its decision on whether or not to give its consent. This may evidence of your assignee’s good standing such as bank and previous landlord references, and copies of audited accounts and bank statements.

If your proposed assignee is not of sufficient standing to satisfy the landlord consent may be granted if the assignee agrees to provide a guarantor for its liabilities or a rent deposit that can then be used if it fails to pay. What the landlord is permitted to insist on will depend on the specific wording of the lease and the specific set of circumstances.

You should also be aware that most landlords will insist that whatever the financial state of the assignee, you, as the outgoing tenant, will be required to guarantee the assignee’s obligations under the lease by what is called an authorised guarantee agreement. You should not make the error of assuming that by assigning your lease you can just walk away from any responsibility. The one thing that the law requires you to is to find someone who can pay the rent and comply with the lease terms. If you do not do this, then the landlord will most probably be able to recover any arrears from you.

If your lease expressly prohibits assignments without containing a requirement for consent to be given by the Landlord, then the starting point is that you cannot assign it at all. However, the landlord may still agree to an assignment taking place. This would still be documented by way of a licence to assign but in this case, the landlord would be under no obligation to grant its consent even if it would be reasonable to do so or to act promptly when considering your request to give that consent.

Actual assignments and virtual assignments

Most transfers of the ownership of a lease are carried out by an ‘actual assignment’ where the tenant assigns its interest in the lease to an assignee as explained above.

In a few cases you may seek to use a virtual assignment whereby you remain liable under the terms of the lease, but enter into a contract with a third-party transferring the economic benefits and burdens of the lease, without actually assigning the lease itself. These can be used when the lease contains overly restrictive assignment clauses. You could, for example, declare a trust or enter into a contract in favour of a third-party, effectively transferring the economic benefits and burdens of the lease to them. However, beware of clauses in the lease which prevent this sort of arrangement.

If a tenant is a company and the shares in that company are transferred to someone else, then the lease would remain unaffected and the tenant would still be the company. Although not strictly a virtual assignment this change of ownership can be a concern to some landlords and as a result, some leases include express provisions restricting changes in the shareholding of the tenant company. However, they are unusual and arguably onerous.

Registering an assignment

If the lease is registered at the Land Registry or has more than 7 years of its term remaining, and you are the assignee, you must register the assignment at the Land Registry. The Land Registry will then process the application and update the title register for the lease so that it is in your name.

It is very important that the assignee does indeed register the lease as, until it does, the assignment is not fully complete and legally you have not yet become the tenant. This has practical implications as, depending on the wording of the lease, you may not be able to serve a valid break notice until it is registered at the Land Registry. As registration can in some circumstances take a long time, you may find yourself unable to end the lease when you expected. If you forget to register you are unlikely to complete your registration in time to take the steps you need to take.

If you do not apply for registration within 2 months of the date of completion of the lease, the lease becomes void and can only be registered is the Land Registrar agrees to make an order extending the 2 month period.

In addition to registering the lease with the Land Registry most leases include an obligation to notify the landlord that an assignment has taken place and to send them a copy of the assignment document and pay them a fee for noting the transaction. Sometimes the lease sets out the specific notice fee, but more often than not the lease merely sets out a minimum fee. In theat case, you should ask the landlord to confirm the notice fee before completing the assignment.

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The effect of an assignment on a lease

In most cases, once a lease has been assigned, the assignee steps into the shoes of the tenant and all the rights and duties that the previous tenant had pass over to the new tenant. Occasionally there are rights in the lease which are personal to the original tenant. Again, this often affects the break clause. If the right to end the lease early is personal to the original tenant, you cannot do so if the lease is assigned. In such circumstances it may be better to sublet the property rather than assign the lease itself.

As most leases require the previous tenant to guarantee the performance of the new tenant, the assignment also has the effect of rearranging the liabilities for payment of the rent. Any previous guarantor under an authorised guarantee agreement will have been automatically released by the assignment and rent deposits may become repayable by the landlord.

Assignment v sub-letting

Is it preferable to assign a lease or sub-let it (retain your lease but grant a lease of the property for a slightly shorter term to another party)? The answer very much depends on your specific requirements and the particular circumstances.

Assigning the lease means that you no longer have any interest in the property. It is quite common that a tenant will still remain ‘on the hook’ for the lease obligations after an assignment, as the landlord will likely have insisted that they enter into an authorised guarantee agreement to guarantee the assignee complies with the lease. However, a landlord will not always insist on an authorised guarantee agreement and, even if one is in place, the obligations on it cease if/when the assignee assigns the lease itself to another party. Therefore, most tenants regard an assignment as the best option where they have no current use or interest in the property and do not think they will do at any point in the future.

As already noted you may have to keep the lease in your name if you wish to rely on any personal rights in the lease by granting a sub-lease. This will allow you to retain your interest in the lease, but it also means that you are still liable to pay the rents due under the lease and comply with all of the lease obligations. As the sub-tenant is likely to be in occupation of all or part of the property, you must manage them to ensure that the sub-tenant does not place you in breach of your duties under the lease.

Other reasons for sub-letting include:

  • Using the sub-lease as an income stream.
  • If you think you may wish to use the property later.
  • If you want to dispose of only part of the property and keep the rest for your own use (most landlords are extremely unlikely to allow you to assign part only of your lease).

Transfer of the landlord’s interest in the building

Only a tenant can assign the lease. If the landlord wishes to dispose of its interest in the lease it does so by selling the freehold interest in the building to a new party who then automatically becomes the landlord. Subject to your receiving proper notification you are then required to pay the rent to the new building owner. If you intend to serve a notice (e.g. bringing the lease to an end or requesting a new lease) make sure that you serve the title on the legal owner otherwise you may find your notice to be of no effect. Beware the registration gap mentioned above. You may think that your apparent landlord is the legal owner but legally he may not be.

Traps for the Unwary

In addition to the points set out above that relate to the terms of the lease, there are other issues which can cause difficulties when trying to assign it. These include:

  1. In any circumstance where the landlord is required to consent to a transaction, make sure that all your rent and similar payments are up to date as often leases state that no consent will be given if payments are outstanding.
  2. The Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) Regulations mean that you cannot assign your lease (or sublet it) if the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) (most likely provided by your landlord when you took the lease) has expired. You cannot even market the property without providing an EPC.
  3. While they may not actually prevent an assignment, breaches of health and safety law or fire safety regulations or the rules around monitoring and managing asbestos may cause delays or scare your assignee away. If compliance with the rules is your responsibility under the lease, your landlord may refuse to consent to the assignment until you do so.

What next?

If you have any questions about assigning a lease, or would like our expert commercial property solicitors to help you through the process, please get in touch.

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