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What’s a Cell Tower Lease Worth?

March 5, 2013
Cell Tower Advisory

People with cell towers on their property are frequently contacted by companies offering to "buyout" their cell tower lease. The resulting question we get is "What's my cell tower lease worth?" This post will attempt to answer that question.

Generally, four things drive the price for a cell tower lease:

1. Location

Is this a rural location where there are multiple sites for a cell tower and landowners are willing to lease land at low rates? Or an urban setting or college town with high demand for wireless services but limited locations to put an antenna? Or a suburban location with medium demand but almost no locations for cell towers? Prices are higher in the latter two cases (high wireless demand and scarcity of locations). 

2. Number of years remaining on the lease

Cell phone companies are to a certain extent "over a barrel" if a lease is near expiration because it will cost them $250,000 or more to find a nearby site for a tower, lease it, permit it, zone it, build it, and then take down the old tower. They have to do this to prevent a gap in service. Thus, a lease that is one year from final expiration is worth far more than one that has fifteen years to go. And the key here is the FINAL expiration of the lease - - although leases normally renew in five-year increments, for the reason just noted the cell company effectively can't cancel a lease. They have to renew it.

3. Current rent that is being paid

If the buyout price is just one lump sum payment to the landlord, then a tower with multiple tenants collectively paying the landlord $3,000 per month is worth far more than one with a single lease paying $500.00 per month. This is less of a factor if the landowner gets to keep all the rents until the current leases expire (such that the buyout company is mainly buying the revenue stream after the current leases expire and from new providers who go on the tower).

4. Number of providers on the tower now (collocators) or who could go on the tower in the future

A tower with three companies on the tower is worth more than one with only one. Similarly, the potential for even more cell companies to put their antennas on the tower also drives up the price. This is especially important in urban and suburban areas with few sites for new towers. Part of what buyout companies are banking on are changes in Federal law which limit local zoning or other problems if they increase the height of an existing tower or make other changes so as to "collocate" additional providers. Landowners should be aware of this, even though the law may be challenged.

Buyout companies basically make money by buying leases cheaply and then charging a large amount to cell companies to use the tower. Buy low, sell high. So (surprise!) their initial offers to landowners are quite low. As a rule of thumb, landowners should probably view buyout offers at a "cap rate" of less than 10 or 11 times the annual revenues they are currently receiving or for less than $150,000 as being "low ball offers" that should be rejected. Usually buyout prices should be well above these figures. The good news for landowners is that bargaining or getting an auction process going (where multiple buyout companies are bidding on the tower) usually drives up the price substantially.

Finally, landowners can and should insist that their legal fees get reimbursed as a part of any sale. This is in addition to the buyout price and is really important because the buyout price is only half the battle -- the terms and commitments in the buyout company's proposed documents to purchase a lease are often too one-sided against the landowner and need to be corrected. A typical example occurs where the buyout company purchases all the rights to put towers on some land BUT leaves the landlord as the "owner" of the property. Thus the landlord will generally be sued if anyone is hurt by the tower - - but the insurance, indemnity and related provisions in buyout companies' proposed documents can be inadequate to protect the landowner in the event of such a suit. The landowner could have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees defending a suit, and more if it loses. 

This is one example of why knowledgeable landowners spend several thousand dollars on legal fees to revise the buyout documents so they are fairer and the landowner is not unduly exposed to liability and why they insist that their legal fees get reimbursed. 

Finally, landowners should make sure they have a lawyer review the FIRST document they sign about a buyout, even if it appears to be an informal "letter" or "letter of intent" because it could bind a landowner to terms that are too one-sided.

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