Tenant Improvements, Leasehold Improvements, and Build-Outs

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Tenant improvement, leasehold improvement, and build-out are different ways of saying the same thing in the commercial real estate business. While the words may be different, the meaning is not. All three terms mean work is being done to an office or a building to prepare it for a new tenant.

Key Takeaways

  • Tenant improvement, leasehold improvement, and build-out are three ways of describing the same concept—improving a leased business space.
  • Tenant improvements include repainting walls, installing new carpet, and updating the light fixtures.
  • The budget for tenant improvements, known as a tenant improvement allowance, is worked out during lease negotiations between the landlord and tenant.

What's in a Name?

The term “tenant improvement,” or “TI” for short, is often used by commercial real estate agents and brokers. But in accounting, it’s usually known as a “leasehold improvement,” while it’s called “build-out” in construction. Regardless of what you call it, this refers to an enhancement of a leased space.

What Are Tenant Improvements?

Leasehold improvements, otherwise known as tenant improvements or build-outs, are structural changes made to a leased space to make it suitable for a new tenant.

Examples of these improvements include:

  • Repainting
  • New carpet
  • Lighting configurations
  • HVAC updates
  • Plumbing upgrades
  • Electrical work
  • Full renovation

These improvements sometimes are done by a contractor that the tenant hires, or the landlord might agree to oversee the work on a turnkey basis. In other cases, both the tenant and landlord might share responsibility for a build-out.

What Is a Tenant Improvement Allowance?

Generally, the landlord covers these improvements as part of what’s called a tenant improvement allowance (TIA). If the budget for improvements surpasses the allowance, the tenant normally makes up the difference.

Tenant improvement allowances are worked out during lease negotiations. During the negotiations, a tenant might decide to give up three month’s of free rent in exchange for a higher tenant allowance. The allowance typically comes in the form of a flat amount of money or a per-square-foot amount.

Moving costs and furniture purchases aren’t included in tenant allowances.

If a landlord offers $25 per square foot for tenant improvements at a 5,000-square-foot office space, for instance, then the landlord would cover $150,000 of the build-out costs. In some situations, the tenant must provide the build-out money upfront, and then seek reimbursement from the landlord.

What Qualifies for Tenant Improvement Allowance?

In general, improvements that apply to the space are subject to the allowance. Stuff that goes into the space does not.

 Qualifies  Does Not Qualify
New carpet New office furniture
HVAC repair New computers
Door and window replacements Sidewalk repaving
Lighting updates Elevator maintenance
Project management costs Internet installation

The Problem With Tenant Improvements

Spending too much on improvements is a common mistake made by business owners when they’re occupying a new space. Be wary of putting too much money into improvements of leased business space. You likely can’t take them with you, and the next tenant to rent that space might not want the same things that you wanted.

Factors that go into deciding the amount of tenant improvement allowance include the tenant’s credit history, the length of the lease, the rental rate, and the condition of the local real estate market.

Leasehold Improvements vs. Building Improvements

Leasehold improvements, tenant improvements, or build-outs are done within the walls of a structure. They focus on a specific space that’s being leased by a single tenant. Making these improvements is to the tenant’s advantage because they will improve their own business, but not the businesses of other tenants.

Improvements made to common areas would be considered building improvements, not leasehold improvements, because they can be enjoyed by more than one tenant. Each tenant typically chips in money for maintenance of common areas in a building.

Accounting for Leasehold Improvements

When it comes to accounting, the tax implications of a build-out depend on who paid for and owns the improvements. Generally, whoever financed and owns the improvements can claim depreciation of these improvements on their tax returns.

Typically, the landlord owns tenant improvements. In fact, most leases spell out that these improvements become the property of a landlord, even if the tenant pays for and oversees the work.

The Bottom Line

Tenant improvements enable a business to spruce up a leased space before moving in. During lease negotiations, a business can agree with the landlord on the budget for these improvements. But if the build-out budget goes over the agreed-upon amount, the tenant likely could be on the hook for the extra expenses.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What happens if a build-out ends up costing less than the tenant improvement allowance?

In some cases, the landlord might be willing to roll the amount of money saved on the build-out into future rent payments. This, along with many other aspects of the lease agreement can be negotiated.

How long do tenant improvements take?

Tenant improvements or a build-out can last several weeks to several months, depending on the complexity of the project, the construction firm, and other factors. Aim to complete improvements before rent payments begin.

How are leasehold improvements depreciated?

Normally, leasehold improvements are depreciated over the course of a building’s “economic life.”

Updated by
John Egan
A photograph shows writer John Egan
Full Bio
John Egan is an experienced personal finance journalist who has written extensively on mortgages and home equity, insurance, credit and credit monitoring, banking, and other personal finance topics. His work has been published by Bankrate, Forbes Advisor, U.S. News & World Report, and many others. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a masters degree in marketing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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