Niche properties

Self-Storage Steps Up

Investors find big returns in this unassuming asset.

Despite the difficult economy and market challenges during the past four years, self-storage as an asset class has continued to provide solid performance and stable returns for investors. Once dominated by mom and pops, or small, independent owner/operators, the self-storage industry has evolved into a top-performing asset class during the past decade.

An Evolving Industry

Though once barely on the radars of major investors, self-storage has taken off among institutional-level investors in recent years. Since 2010, real estate investment trusts have demonstrated an almost insatiable appetite for properties larger than 45,000 net rentable square feet in the top 25 metropolitan statistical areas. In 2011, self-storage REITs boasted a handsome return of 35.4 percent — the strongest of any REIT — for the second consecutive year, according to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts.

Despite the changes in the self-storage industry, approximately 83 percent of these properties nationwide remain in the hands of small, independent investors, according to the 2012 Self-Storage Almanac. Most sellers today are not disposing of their assets to capitalize on the improving market. Rather, sellers are often driven by life events that motivate them to sell at a reasonable price.

With affordable capital available through debt and equity providers, small investors are starting to take advantage of self-storage investment opportunities in secondary markets. The nearly historical high spreads between capitalization rates and interest rates in secondary markets have allowed small investors to generate very compelling cash-on-cash returns.

How Does Self-Storage Stack Up?

Self-storage has managed to maintain stable occupancies throughout the economic downturn. At year-end 2012, only 4 percent of self-storage commercial mortgage-backed securities loans were in delinquent status — the lowest delinquency rate among all major commercial real estate asset classes, according to Trepp data. With cap rates hovering around 7 percent nationwide, self-storage is in line with other core real estate asset classes, according to the PwC Real Estate Investor Survey, 2Q 2012.

However, the growing institutional buyer focus on properties in the top 25 MSAs has led to overall cap rate compression in these markets. The cost of capital for institutional buyers ranges from 100 to 300 basis points less than the cap rate yield, thus providing a positive return on equity for a leveraged transaction. The availability of capital through CMBS, banks, and life insurance companies provides good debt options with very aggressive terms.

Armed with enormous amounts of equity, large buyers generally concentrate on properties in excess of 45,000 sf as well as portfolio transactions. These larger facilities and portfolios have also enjoyed strong upticks in rental rates around the country, particularly in the top markets. In 2012, there were 29 self-storage portfolio transactions, creating opportunities for big investors to purchase large amounts of core self-storage assets. Cap rates for the larger deals in major MSAs range between 6 percent and 7.5 percent.

Cap rates for smaller properties and properties in secondary markets range between 8 percent and 10 percent. There are numerous financing options available for smaller properties, including banks, CMBS, and life companies that are willing to lend in the $1 million to $5 million range. Current interest rates for these loans are in the 3.5 percent to 5 percent range, giving small buyers the opportunity to realize an arbitrage of a 300- to 500-basis point spread between interest rates and cap rates. This has created very compelling cash-on-cash return for buyers today. These persisting low interest rates are a driving force behind compressed cap rates and are providing high returns to self-
storage investors overall.

During the past five years, very few self-storage projects have been developed across the country, which has allowed existing properties to enjoy the benefits of an improving economy and higher occupancies. As the economy continues to improve, new development is picking up in markets where fundamentals are strong. Further fueling this trend is banks’ willingness to consider more reasonable construction financing terms. Markets such as Denver and Dallas are leading the way with strong rental rates accompanied by high occupancies and are enticing self-storage developers to move forward with new projects or expand existing properties. Denver currently has 16 self-storage projects on the drawing board consisting of more than 1 million sf, all of which is scheduled to come on line in the next 12 to 18 months. The combination of strong returns and low default rates attracts investors to the opportunity that self-storage affords.

Drivers of Success

As Wall Street and the investment community have taken notice of self-storage as a viable commercial asset class, the underlying dynamics continue to fuel the sector’s success. Key drivers of this performance include the fact that self-storage has no need for tenant improvements or leasing commissions, which results in higher net rental income than most commercial real estate alternatives. The additional low maintenance requirements also contribute to increased bottom line performance.

The generally large tenant base and short-term nature of self-storage leases allow owners to react quickly to changing market conditions and also protect owners from long-term vacancies that occur in other commercial real estate assets. In addition, self-storage has a higher 10-year average return than any of the major property sectors. Because of these operating characteristics and the flexibility short-term leases provide the operators, self-storage continues to be underestimated by many investors.

With solid past performance and upward trending occupancies and rental rates, self-storage has captured the attention of large institutional investors as well as regional and small investors. The rising star of commercial real estate industry may not shine forever, but it appears it to be on a favorable course for the foreseeable future.

C. William Barnhill, CCIM, is president of Omega Properties in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at Ben Vestal is president of the Argus Self-storage Sales Network, a nationwide affiliation of commercial real estate brokers who specialize in self-storage transactions. Contact him at