Two types of fixtures

Two types of fixtures exist distinguishing improvements installed in a building:

  • real estate fixtures; and
  • trade fixtures.

A real estate fixture is personal property that is attached to the real estate. It becomes part of the real estate it is attached to and is conveyed with the property. [Calif. Civil Code §§660; 1013]

For example, if a tenant rents an office and builds bookshelves into the wall rather than merely anchoring them to the wall, the bookshelves become part of the improvements located on the real estate.

When the lease expires, real estate fixtures become the landlord’s property. The landlord takes possession of the real estate fixtures as part of the real estate forfeited or surrendered to the landlord, unless the lease agreement provides for restoration or permits removal by the tenant. The conveyance of real estate fixtures from tenant to landlord on expiration of the lease is called reversion. [City of Beverly Hills v. Albright (1960) 184 CA2d 562]

Conversely, trade fixtures do not revert to the landlord on expiration of the lease. A trade fixture is an improvement that is attached to the real estate by the tenant and is unique to the operation of the tenant’s business, not the use of the building.

Consider a tenant who leases property to operate a beauty salon. The tenant moves in work-related furnishings (i.e., mirrors, salon chairs, wash stations and dryers), necessary to run the business. The items are attached to the floor, walls, plumbing and electrical leads.

On expiration of the lease, the tenant removes the fixtures that were used to render the services offered by the business. The landlord claims the fixtures are improvements to the property and cannot be removed since they became part of the real estate when installed.

However, furnishings unique to the operation of a business are considered trade fixtures even though the furnishings are attached and built into the structure. Trade fixtures are removable by the tenant.

A tenant may, at the end of or anytime during the lease term, remove any fixture used for trade purposes if the removal can be done without damaging the premises. [Beebe v. Richards (1953) 115 CA2d 589]

Fixtures that have become an integral part of the building’s structure due to the way they are attached or the general purpose they serve cannot be removed. Examples of fixtures which cannot be removed include:

  • toilets;
  • air conditioners;
  • vent conduits;
  • sprinkler systems; and
  • lowered ceilings. [CC §1019]

Trade fixtures as security

Lease agreements often contain a default provision prohibiting the tenant from removing the trade fixtures when the agreement is breached. The tenant (and their unsecured creditors) no longer has a right to the trade fixtures under a default provision.

Consider a tenant who signs a commercial lease agreement to use the premises to operate a frozen packaging plant. The lease agreement states all fixtures, trade or leasehold, belong to the landlord if the lease is terminated due to a breach by the tenant.

The tenant later encumbers the existing trade fixtures by borrowing money against them. The tenant then defaults on their lease payments. While in default on the lease, the tenant surrenders the property to the landlord, including all trade fixtures.

Does the lender on the mortgage secured by the trade fixtures have a right to repossess them?

No! The tenant lost their ownership right to remove the trade fixtures under the terms of the lease agreement that was entered into before they encumbered the trade fixtures. Any right to the fixtures held by the secured lender is similarly lost since the lender is junior in time and thus subordinate to the landlord’s interest in the fixtures under the lease agreement.

However, if the trade fixtures installed by the tenant are owned by a third party, or if a third party had a lien on them at the time of their installation, the landlord has no more right to them than the tenant. [Goldie v. Bauchet Properties (1975) 15 C3d 307]