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Why are leases made for 99-year terms?

Dear Cecil:

Why is it that leases frequently are made for 99 years instead of 100, or some other more manageable figure? The idea, obviously, is that the person who takes the lease will be dead by the time it comes up for renewal, but how was this particular number arrived at? It all seems very strange to me.

Leonard Scheuer, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Dear Leonard:

The 99-year lease is apparently a by-product of an old English custom, dating back at least to feudal times. In the Middle Ages, extended leases were made for a period of 1,000 years, but as the Renaissance approached, the figure was reduced to 999 for reasons that today aren’t entirely clear.

In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare bends a metaphor around the thousand-year lease–"Now I am so hungry, that if I might have a lease of my life for a thousand years, I could stay no longer"–so the practice must have survived into the 17th century. But a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Sir Edward Coke, is already speculating on the origin of the 999-year lease. The thousand-year lease, he thinks, might have at one time been ruled fraudulent by the English courts–a lease that long was really a sale. If such a law existed, the landowners would avoid it by setting a term of 999 years, the loophole hardly being a modern invention. But no record of any such ruling exists.

The 99-year lease was largely an American invention, the hubba-hubba colonists apparently having no patience for the long-term view, and was probably worked out by analogy to the traditional 999 year figure. But not all of the experts agree. John Bouvier, writing in his 1839 Law Dictionary, the first legal reference book published in the United States, offers a different explanation:

"The limit of 99 years would seem to be connected with a somewhat arbitrary estimate of 100 years as the probable estimate of a man’s life. Leases for years are in their attributes, evolution, and history, a sort of middle term between estates-for-life and a tenant-at-will. For this reason a period little short of the duration of the life of man was devised so that the lessee might reasonably build or lay out money for the property."

Other speculation ranges from the cabalistic, focusing on 9 as a mystic number, to the hierarchical, 99 years being the approximate period covered by three generations. The hard-nosed approach suggests that the government once levied a higher tax on leases of 100 years or more, but there is no concrete evidence of this.

You are perfectly free–this being the land of the same–to draw up a lease for whatever term you wish, a millenium or twenty minutes. The 99 year figure has certain obvious advantages, being a nice, solid number to satisfy the bankers, but still being wide open for all practical purposes.

Cecil Adams

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