What is a Cell Tower Lease?

Since 2004, Steel in the Air has helped over 2,500 private landowners, commercial property owners, municipal governments and other public entities (universities, public utilities, parks and churches) understand and favorably position themselves in cellular lease negotiations and small cell infrastructure deployment. We take pride in providing our clients with the best advice in consideration of all possible factors. Whether you seek to deploy a DAS or small cell solution yourself, or have been contacted by a company who wants to use your property to install one, we can be of assistance.

Where do I find Cell Tower Lease Rate Data?

Cell tower lease data is not readily available to most landowners. While leases are recorded, the wireless carriers typically use a memorandum of lease which does not contain lease rate or other business term information from the lease. There is no Multiple Listing Service (or MLS) for cell tower leases. Steel in the Air has been gathering data about lease rates for nearly 20 years. Our database consists of nearly 13,000 leases that contain lease rate information. We have gathered this data from public and private sources over the last two decades. Nobody has a more thorough lease rate database other than the tower companies and wireless carriers themselves.

WHAT ARE CELL TOWER LEASES WORTH IN 2021?

On average, wireless carriers entered into new lease with landowners at an average of $1,050/mo. on a nationwide basis. There is a wide variation though in what landowners are offered. Generally, though most offers are between $500/mo and $1,500/mo for new ground leases for telecommunication towers. The average lease rate for all ground leases in our database in 2021 is just under $1,300/mo. This is up from $1,220/mo. when we last checked in 2018. These averages include rural, suburban, and urban towers including newly built 5G towers.
2020 Average Proposed Cell Tower Ground Lease Rate 2018 Average Cell Tower Ground Lease Rate for All Leases (new and existing) 2018 Average Cell Tower Ground Lease Rate for All Leases (new and existing)
$12,600/year $14,640/year $15,600/year

Do Cell Tower Leases Pay More in One Area of the Country Over Another?

They do. If you examine the chart below, you can see the top 10 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States with the average monthly and annual rents for leases. This data is from a study that we conducted for a client where we looked at average lease rates for ground leases and collocation leases in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
METROPOLITAN AREA 2021 POPULATION (ESTIMATED) AVERAGE CELL TOWER LEASE RATE (Month) Average cell tower lease (annual)
New York 19.2 M $ 1,900 $ 22,800
Los Angeles 13.2 M $ 1,500 $ 18,000
Chicago 9.5 M $ 1,300 $ 15,600
Dallas 7.6 M $ 1,000 $ 12,000
Houston 7.1 M $ 1,000 $ 12,000
Washington DC 6.3 M $ 1,750 $ 21,000
Miami 6.2 M $ 1,750 $ 18,000
Philadelphia 6.1 M $ 1400 $ 16,800
Atlanta 6.0 M $ 1,400 $ 16,800
Phoenix 4.9 M $ 1,300 $ 15,600
San Francisco 4.7 M $ 2,500 $ 30,000

Even in these metropolitan areas, there are pockets of variation- meaning that leases in Oakland generally average less than San Francisco proper. Below is a heat map showing which states in the United States have the highest cell tower lease rates (orange) and the lowest (blue) on average.

WHAT ARE SOME LOCATIONS HAVE HIGHER RENTS THAN OTHERS?

Like any property type, rent is based upon the underlying market real estate conditions. Markets that have higher rents across all types of properties also tend to have higher cell tower rents. However, an equally important factor is the difficulty of finding suitable alternatives. A cell tower site may be unique for multiple reasons. Perhaps there is unique topography (hills/valleys) that restricts the location of where a cell tower can be placed and still see the preferred coverage. Or someone owns all of the land in the area and the cell tower developer has no other choice but to put the tower on that land. Sometimes the zoning regulations of an area limit where towers can be built. They do this by restricting where towers are allowed. Zoning regulations often contain limits on how high a tower can be on certain types of properties or how close it can be to property lines or to other towers. Some cities prefer lots of shorter towers and make it easy to build new ones. Others prefer fewer but taller towers. Lease rates also vary significantly depending upon the age of the lease. A tower built 20 years ago that started at $1,000/mo and that has a 3% annual escalator now pays $1,700/mo. Also, when a lease expires, the landowner can typically negotiate even higher lease rates than the average in the area because the tower owner has invested a lot of money into the tower.

What is happening in 2021 with lease rates?

The last few years have been interesting for lease holders with trends pushing lease values up and down.

TRENDS PUSHING LEASE VALUES Up!

  • As more equipment (including 5G!) is added to your tower, the tower owner may be receiving more revenue from subtenants on the tower.
  • In areas with difficult zoning regulations that protect against the erection of new towers, the tower owner may not be able to move the tower.
  • Wireless carriers are deploying new spectrum on towers that has lower effective range, meaning that existing tower locations in urban and suburban areas are more necessary now than before.
  • Some subtenants have signed long term leases with the tower owner which makes it prohibitively difficult to move a tower.

TRENDS PUSHING LEASE VALUES Down!

  • Now that T-Mobile and Sprint have merged, there are approximately 35,000 Sprint sites that will eventually be terminated. If Sprint is on your tower, that could mean that there is no revenue or less revenue coming in to the tower owner.
  • Wireless carriers are building small cells where they need additional capacity. As they do, this can reduce the need for shorter cell towers that serve a similar purpose.
  • Wireless carriers are more aggressive than ever in trying to renegotiate their leases. They hire third party optimization firms that are paid solely to get landowners to reduce their lease rates.
  • Build-to-relocate tower companies are building new towers near existing towers in order to move over wireless carriers from the existing tower to the new tower. This reduces the value of the existing tower to its owner or causes them to be more conservative in lease negotiations. And because these build-to-relo tower companies are committing to very low lease rates to the carrier moving over, they are often unwilling to pay much to the landowner for the new lease.

How do wireless carriers determine how much rent to offer to a landowner for a lease?

When a wireless carrier or tower company first approaches a landowner, they use a site acquisition agent to contact the landowner. The agent typically already has a starting lease rate in mind when they knock on the door to start negotiations. The rates they will propose is based upon a number of factors. The primary factor is what their experience tells them is the lease rate at which most landowners will agree. Most site acquisition agents have a significant amount of experience in the area where they are acquiring new cell tower sites. These lease specialists will know the average lease for a given area. They know what the carrier or tower company is willing to pay. The wireless carrier or tower company also provides suggestions on the appropriate starting offer lease rate. The site acquisition agent, if they are good at what they do, will have already reviewed the area and chosen the sites that best fit the objectives provided by the wireless carrier or tower company. They are required by their contract with the wireless companies to find three alternative candidates for the proposed tower or rooftop site. (See the map below showing a search ring and alternative candidates). They know whether your site will work under local zoning regulations, federal regulations, and whether the site is easy to construct or not. They will have done a competitive analysis of the area to determine whether multiple properties could work and meet the carrier’s objectives. Unfortunately, they won’t tell you what they found in their research.
Contrary to popular belief, lease rates aren’t tied to population density nor are they tied to the ground elevation. As shown above, while ground lease rents for tower do tend to be higher in more urban areas, some urban areas command completely different lease rates even though they are similar in population. While we believe that any landowner can network and find a few friends/neighbors with a cell tower lease and ask them what they are getting paid, that doesn’t mean that the small sample you have is representative of the fair market value of your specific site. Nor does it mean that you deserve to get the average value for your site. Your site may be preferable to the wireless carriers, and they may be willing to pay more for it.

What is my cell tower lease worth?

If you have read through to this point, you know what the average lease rate for cell towers in the United States. You might know from the chart above what the average rate is in your metropolitan area. You may even have comparable data on what your neighbors are getting for cell towers on their property. You might think that at this point, you have enough information to negotiate the proper lease rate for your location. If your site is average and the wireless carrier or tower company has other options, then you likely have enough information to negotiate a fair lease rate. However, if your property is not average or the wireless carrier doesn’t have other options, you will likely leave money on the table. And this is the second most important factor related to cellular tower lease rates: the knowledge or relative knowledge of the landowner. Unless you deal with cell phone tower land leases daily (or weekly or even monthly) you are unlikely to know what you don’t know.
When I was doing site acquisition, I can specifically recall when and where I came up with the idea of being a lease consultant. It was while I was walking away from a piece of property in St. Charles, Missouri after pitching the landowner on a T-Mobile lease for ground. We had offered $700/mo. and the landowner countered at $900/mo. thinking that he had done a good job. I personally knew that even though we rarely paid had to pay more than $1000/mo. in the area, we would have easily paid $1,500/mo. or possibly more for this specific location because it was the only property located in the search ring with the proper zoning. This landowner didn’t know what I as the site acquisition agent did and as a result, left $600/mo. on the table. To figure out what he left on the table, I used our handy cell tower lease rate calculator. In short, this individual left over $300,000 on the table over the standard 25-year lease in that negotiation because he didn’t know what he didn’t know. And after I left that property, I knew that only 1 in a 100 people would have known what T-Mobile would have paid and unfortunately this landowner didn’t have any of them

How Does Steel in the Air help?

We provide expertise to help your negotiation. We do an in-depth analysis of your site and provide a site-specific assessment that walks through the following aspects of your site and lease or lease proposal. We examine zoning regulations, land ownership records, locations of nearby towers, and the average lease rate in your area. You can click here for more information about our process of determining fair market value for new leases or for existing leases that are set to expire. If you care to see a sample of our standard assessment before you retain us, contact us, tell us more about your situation and we will provide a redacted sample.

What is my cell tower lease worth?

Unlike our competitors who use their market knowledge to take advantage of you by charging a success fee, we charge a simple flat fee in most cases for evaluating your lease. Our fees are all inclusive- you don’t pay for additional questions or guidance. And you will never have to pay us an ongoing percentage of your lease just to retain our services. While our fees can be more costly up front- over the course of the lease, they are far less expensive than our competitors.

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