What Is a Leasehold Improvement?

The term leasehold improvement refers to any changes made to customize a rental property to satisfy the particular needs of a specific tenant. These changes and alterations may include painting, installing partitions, changing the flooring, or putting in customized light fixtures. Improvements may be undertaken by the landlord or the tenant and may be paid by the tenant. While the useful economic life of most leasehold improvements is anywhere between five and 10 years, the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) requires that depreciation for such improvements to occur over the economic life of the building.

Key Takeaways

  • A leasehold improvement is a change made to a rental property to customize it for the particular needs of a tenant.
  • Landlords may agree with these improvements for existing or new tenants.
  • Leasehold improvements may be done by the landlord or tenant.
  • Painting, installing partitions or customized light fixtures, and changing flooring are all leasehold improvements.
  • Enlargements to buildings, elevators and escalators, roofs, fire protection, alarm and security systems, and HVAC systems do not qualify as leasehold improvements.
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Leasehold Improvement

How a Leasehold Improvement Work

Leasehold improvements are commonly referred to as tenant improvements or build-outs. These changes are generally made by landlords of commercial properties and may be provided for an existing or new tenant. Any changes made are tailored to the specific needs of a tenant and make the space more attractive and appealing to them.

There are certain criteria that must be met in order for changes to qualify as leasehold improvements. Changes must be made to the interior to accommodate the specific needs of the tenant, including any of the following:

  • Structural modifications
  • New drywall and flooring
  • Updates to lighting, electrical, technology systems
  • Addition of rooms, cubicles, partitions
  • Shelving and countertops

Not all changes are considered leasehold improvements. Modifications made for one tenant don't qualify for other tenants, including their neighbors. Exterior building renovations, such as landscaping, parking lot repairs, or roofing don't qualify either. Even interior alterations like upgrades made to a building's elevator or HVAC systems aren't considered leasehold improvements. That's because they don't benefit a specific tenant.

Once the lease ends, the improvements generally belong to the landlord, unless otherwise specified in the agreement. If the tenant is able to take them, they must remove them without any damage to the property.

Leasehold improvements are considered qualified improvement property for tax purposes, along with building improvements, qualified restaurant property, and qualified retail improvements under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017.

Types of Leasehold Improvements

Tenant Improvement Allowance

This type of leasehold improvement gives the tenant authority to oversee the project, taking the burden off the landlord especially if the process is time-consuming. The landlord normally puts provisions in place in the lease that covers the budget of the tenant allowance improvement. This is usually listed as a lump sum or on a per square foot basis. Landlords may either pay the renovation/construction company directly or reimburse the tenant directly. If project budgets are exceeded, the tenant covers the balance.

Rent Discount

The landlord may offer the tenant rent discounts for leasehold improvements. If this option is included in the lease, the tenant may get rent relief of some type, such as one free month or reduced rent for certain periods per year. This allows the tenant to save on space alterations. Just like with the TIA, the tenant oversees the project and controls the lease improvements. The tenant is also responsible if costs exceed the budget.

Building Standard Allowance

This option is also called a build-out. In this case, the landlord presents an improvement package or other options to the tenant. The landlord is typically the one who manages the project, allowing the tenant more time to devote to their business. In most cases, tenants may not end up with the modifications they actually want to help their business grow. If they do choose to add on to the changes, they must cover the additional cost.

Turn Key

This type of leasehold improvement is normally undertaken at the beginning of the lease. In most cases, cost estimates and plans are submitted by the tenant while the landlord is the one who supervises and pays for all of the work.

Leasehold Improvements Rules

In December 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, which modified and extended many tax provisions related to depreciation, including leasehold improvements. The bill made permanent a tax-savings provision that allowed for 15-year straight-line cost recovery on qualified leasehold improvements. Under those guidelines:

  • Landlords and tenants were not allowed to be related
  • Improvements only qualified if they were made to the interior of the building with only that tenant occupying the space
  • Leasehold improvements were required to be completed after three years of the building first being occupied for service

The passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 changed the way landlords and tenants can claim deductions involving leasehold improvements. The new law modified some of the requirements. Improvements must still be made to the interior of the building, which means enlargements to buildings, elevators and escalators, roofs, fire protection, alarm, and security systems, and HVAC systems still don't qualify.

The qualified improvement property no longer requires both parties (landlords and tenants) to be unrelated. It also eliminated the three-year requirement, stating that all improvements may be made "after the date when the property was first placed in service," according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act made some tweaks to qualified improvement property (QIP) when it was passed in 2020. The act put a 15-year recovery period for QIP and allowed filers to claim first-year depreciation for any QIP.

Most lenders won't allow repayment terms beyond the life of the lease if financing is required to pay for any leasehold improvements.

Accounting for Leasehold Improvements

The IRS does not allow deductions for improvements. But because improvements are considered part of the building, they are prone to depreciation. The IRS allows for depreciation deductions, as long as these conditions are satisfied. Whoever does the work is allowed to take the depreciation deduction, whether that's the landlord or the tenant. The new tax act increased the maximum amount allowed to $1 million from $500,000.

Accounting experts suggest expensing any improvements made that amount to less than the company's capitalization limit during the same period. If they exceed this amount, the total should be capitalized and amortized over the term of the lease or over the shorter period of the life of the improvements.

Leasehold Improvement vs. Building Improvement

While they may effectively be building improvements, leasehold improvements are distinctly different. That's because they only really make an impact on the space for a specific tenant. Building improvements, on the other hand, benefit everyone in the property and generally change the overall structure of the building itself.

Examples of building improvements include putting up a new roof, paving a driveway and/or parking lot, adding a parking lot, renovating the lobby, adding a new or repairing an existing elevator, and updating the HVAC system. As such, building improvements help extend the overall life of the structure.

Examples of a Leasehold Improvement

Landlords may pay for leasehold improvements to encourage tenants to rent spaces for longer periods of time, especially in the retail industry. For example, a business owner leases a building for their disc golf shop. The landlord may choose to add four walls to the leased area to create built-in displays and storage areas for the discs. These alterations are considered leasehold improvements.

Let's take another example from the retail sector. The owner of Store A decides to lease space through Company B. The store only has four walls and no other amenities. Through the lease negotiation, Company B—the landlord—agrees to install shelving, a service counter for cash registers, and a display unit with special lighting before Store A opens its doors.

Leasehold Improvements FAQs

What Are Examples of Leasehold Improvements?

A leasehold improvement is anything that benefits one specific tenant, usually in a commercial property. This includes painting, adding new walls, putting up display shelves, changing flooring and lighting, and the addition of offices, walls, and partitions.

Who Pays for Leasehold Improvements?

Landlords budget and pay for improvements by offering a tenant improvement allowance or through rent discounts. They may also pay by offering the tenant a package of modifications from which they can choose. The tenant is normally responsible for any additional costs that go over the budget.

Are Leasehold Improvements Tax Deductible?

You can't deduct leasehold improvements. But the IRS does allow building owners to account for their depreciation because any improvements made are considered to be part of the building.