What Is a Leasehold Property? A Rental That Lasts ... and Lasts

Most people know the difference between renting and owning a home, but there’s a third category many aren’t familiar with called a leasehold property. That’s where you lease (or rent) property, but for far longer than a tenant’s usual one- or two-year time frame. Contracts for leaseholds, in contrast, last for a minimum of 40 years—up to 120! Yeah, that’s a long, long time, almost certainly far past the point that you’ll get to enjoy the place. So what’s the deal with this long-haul rental arrangement?

Read on for details, and to figure out whether a leasehold might be right for you.

How a leasehold works

In leasehold arrangements, the property owner (also called the freeholder) grants the lessee the right to live on the property for a specified span of time. To hold up his end of the bargain, the lessee will have to make a down payment—only it’s far less than the typical 20% required on a conventional home. After that, lessees pay rent every month like your typical tenant.

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Since lessees commit to renting a property for such a long span of time, they have one clear advantage over more temporary tenants in that they can have their way with home improvements. Lessees can renovate to their heart’s content, build additions, or even erect whole new buildings (and rent those units out to tenants of their own choosing). At the end of the lease, however, unless the contract stipulates otherwise or a longer lease is negotiated, the property reverts back to the owner, improvements and all.

Leaseholds are more common for commercial property where malls and other businesses can be built, but they also exist for residential purposes like houses and condos. While leaseholds are fairly rare, they can still be found across the U.S., particularly in New York, Florida, and Hawaii.

Leaseholds make particular sense on islands or beach communities, where land is limited and at a premium. In Maui, for example, leasehold estates were more commonly created in condo developments during the 1970s and 1980s (and many of them are at the point of running out).

Benefits of a leasehold property

Leasehold properties come with a few noteworthy benefits. For one, they’re usually less expensive than purchasing the same place outright. You can also sell your leasehold to someone else without the property owner’s permission or involvement; the more time left on the lease, the more valuable it is.

“Sometimes, leasehold properties can be a sweet deal,” says Powell Berger, a Hawaii real estate expert. But they also come with some major downsides. “For most home buyers, they are a bad option because you really don’t build equity,” Berger explains. “Mention ‘leasehold property’ ownership to most Hawaii residents and you’re likely to be met with stern warnings.”

Yet Berger also notes that leaseholds can be ideal if you’re buying the condo to use as rental property to rake in a steady revenue as a landlord.

“The cost of owning the unit is low, and the rental income it produces can generate a good return over the long haul of the lease,” he says.

Leasehold interests are also good for seniors on a fixed income. Under a short-term lease, rent can be raised every year. But with a leasehold interest, the rates could stay the same for decades. With a lower down payment than a freehold property would require, this could be the ideal arrangement for older people looking to downsize.

Of course, as with any real estate transaction, you’ll want to carefully weigh the pros and cons of a leasehold property and consult a real estate agent before you sign on the dotted line. But for some people, this gray area between renting and buying could be the perfect ticket to kicking back on a patch of paradise without the hassles that true homeownership often entails.

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