Investors catch the wave in secondary markets.
Secondary markets are
riding a wave of recovery that has brought a welcome resurgence of investment
The expansion into
secondary markets is the theme du jour in the commercial real estate market.
“We have seen a massive movement of capital from primary locations to secondary
locations, both on the equity and debt side,” says Dan Fasulo, a managing director
at Real Capital Analytics in New York. “That has created not only an explosion
of investment activity, but a corresponding rise in values in these secondary
markets,” he adds.
Growing confidence in the
economic and commercial real estate market recovery has been a boon to
investment sales in the past 18 months. Fueled by interest rates that remain
near historic lows, investment sales surpassed $355 billion in 2013 — up 19
percent over the $299 billion in sales that occurred in 2012, according to Real
Capital Analytics. After a considerable dry spell, secondary and even tertiary
markets across the country are experiencing a spike in investment sales.
That momentum is expected
to continue in 2014 as investors both increase and broaden their interest in
secondary markets as they search for higher yields. Certainly, secondary
markets in Texas, such as Houston and Dallas, as well as West Coast markets
including the likes of Portland, Ore., and Seattle have been on the short list
for the past year. But investors also are stepping up buying across the country
in markets ranging from Las Vegas to Nashville, Tenn.
“In general, there is so
much more confidence among investors that they are willing to take more risk
than they were in the past, and they are more willing to step up and buy
properties that they were not willing to a year or two ago,” says Dave Winder,
CCIM, director of office and investment properties at Boise, Idaho-based
Cushman & Wakefield/Commerce.
For many markets, that
confidence stems from marked improvement in the local economies. In Boise, for
example, the unemployment rate has dropped from a high of around 10 percent to
now below 6 percent. “It hasn’t been stellar job growth, but there is good job
growth occurring,” Winder says. A significant amount of employment in Boise is
driven by the residential market. Mortgage financing and residential
construction stopped in 2007 and 2008 and now that industry is coming back,
which is helping to drive the broader economy, he adds.
Commercial investment real
estate sales have been on the upswing since 2010. The increase in investment
sales nationally is creating a trickle-down effect across markets. Greenville,
S.C., for example, saw an uptick in activity in the past year among both buyers
and sellers as more properties landed on the for-sale market.
“The activity that we are
seeing now across the board in office, industrial, and even retail has been
terrific,” says Brian Young, CCIM, SIOR, a senior vice president and managing
broker at Cushman & Wakefield/Thalhimer in Greenville. In 2013, about $250
million in sales had either closed or were under contract for sale at year-end.
That is an impressive
amount for a market the size of Greenville, which is home to about 840,000
people in the surrounding metro area. Although the number of transactions has
increased, the total volume also was bolstered by a single large transaction.
Cushman & Wakefield/Thalhimer listed the 2 million-square-foot Adidas
campus last fall. Young expects that property, which will continue to be leased
long-term by Adidas, to sell for about $125 million.
institutional investors and real estate investment trusts are generally the
ones that grab attention for their transactions, the lifeblood for many
secondary and tertiary markets remains the smaller local and regional
investors. Traditionally, Boise is an investment market that has been dominated
by local and regional buyers and now that the sales market is rebounding, those
same players are back and actively looking for new opportunities. “In the last
year, transaction activity has increased exponentially in my market,” Winder
For example, Cushman &
Wakefield recently brokered the sale of a 25,584-sf medical office building in
downtown Boise. The building is 100 percent occupied by strong tenants, most of
which have long terms remaining on their leases.It was purchased by a
local investor with an out-of-town partner. The property sold for a
lower-than-typical capitalization rate of 6.5 percent due to its strong tenants
and stable, long-term cash flows.
Canadian buyers also have
stepped up their buying activity in Midwest markets such as Minneapolis and
Columbus, Ohio. They see opportunities to buy properties as real estate markets
improve. And they also are using those investments as a hedge against the U.S.
dollar, notes Shad Phipps, CCIM, a senior associate in the investment
properties/private capital group at CBRE Capital Markets in Columbus.
In Columbus, Canadians are
acquiring quality, multitenant office buildings in good locations that are
still priced well below replacement value. For example, Montreal-based Amcor
Holdings has acquired seven office buildings totaling about 950,000 sf from AEW
Capital for $25.1 million. “I think there is opportunity here, and I think that
is ultimately what they are looking for,” Phipps says.
The lure of higher returns
has served as a magnet to draw capital to the secondary markets. Investors are
clearly driven by the need to boost yield. Buying property in Manhattan or San
Francisco at a 4 percent yield per year is just not going to cut it, Fasulo
says. “So, all of a sudden places like Minneapolis and Pittsburgh and Phoenix
that were considered a little risky have now come back on the radar,” he adds.
After moving to a near
10-year high, the price spread between properties in primary and secondary
markets has started to narrow again. Pricing among the six major metros rose 9
percent through October 2013, while prices in non-major metros were up 13
percent, according to Real Capital Analytics.
Competition and bidding
wars for core properties in gateway cities such as New York, San Francisco, and
Washington, D.C., have prompted buyers to expand their list of target markets.
“As these investors continue to look for a certain yield, they have been forced
to look in secondary and tertiary markets like Greenville,” Young says. For
example, Cushman & Wakefield/Thalhimer had the listing on a 221,000-sf
industrial building in south suburban Greenville. The property drew about 10
offers and had five serious bidders that made it to the third round. Exeter
Property Group, a Pennsylvania-based private equity firm, ended up buying the
building in November for $9.7 million or a cap rate of 7.5 percent.
“You’re seeing more and
more investors seeking a better yield and coming to markets like Lexington,
Ky.,” agrees Bruce R. Isaac, CCIM, SIOR, senior vice president at NAI Isaac
Commercial Properties in Lexington. Buyers are looking for well-located, highly
occupied properties that are leased to good credit tenants. In Lexington, for
example, apartments as well as single-tenant net-leased and grocery-anchored
retail centers are in demand.
Typically, investors can
find investments that generate returns higher than in primary markets. For
example, Lexington currently has a triple-net-leased Walgreens property listed
that will likely sell at a 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent cap rate. Even though
that is an aggressive cap rate for Lexington, it is still well above the 4 or
4.5 percent cap rate that similar “A” credit net-leased deals could draw in
Stability vs. Value-Add
Although buyers are making
decisions based on their own unique investment criteria, there are two distinct
strategies that have emerged. One group of investors is searching for stability
and cash flow, while at the opposite side of the spectrum are those buyers
pursuing the higher yields of value-add opportunities.
Both strategies are in
play in the Columbus market. For example, CBRE recently represented the lender
on the sale of a real estate-owned retail property that was 42 percent occupied
in suburban Columbus. The 26,150-sf retail strip center ultimately sold to a
local private investor for well below replacement cost at $850,000 or $32.50
per square foot. The new owner has since invested in the property, improved
occupancy, and now has a property with positive cash flow. “These are the types
of projects that, when bought at the right price and managed correctly, will
produce quite a return for the owner,” Phipps says.
Buyers are more hesitant
when it comes to acquiring properties that fall somewhere in between those two
categories, Phipps notes. Those stabilized properties that are priced at market
are generating less interest, because there is still some leasing risk. So, it
lacks the security of a triple-net-leased property and also the upside of a
more value-add buy.
There is a risk that
rising interest rates could create price uncertainty, which could slow
investment sales. However, some industry experts believe that concerns of
higher interest rates are offset by improving market fundamentals in terms of
rising occupancies and rents. “I see a wave of capital built up that feels
every bit as deep as 2007,” Fasulo says. “I think you will see a continued
expansion of recovery to different geographies around the country and into
almost every property sector, irrespective of interest rates that may be moving
higher. There is just too much capital right now.”
Beth Mattson-Teig is a
business writer based in Minneapolis.
Economic Growth Offsets
Investors seem willing to
take on more risk in exchange for the higher returns available in secondary
markets. That shift suggests growing confidence in both the economic recovery
and improving commercial real estate fundamentals.
Yet, buyers are diligent
in their underwriting and need to be comfortable with the long-term outlook for
those markets. As such, investors are gravitating to secondary markets that
have a compelling story: a growing economy, good employment, and business
diversity. Such factors are apparent in Texas markets such as Dallas and
Houston, where sales are on the rise. The state has led the country in job
growth and continues to benefit from the booming energy industry. Dallas
reported $14 billion and Houston reached $13.7 billion in sales in 2013, which
was behind only Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Chicago, according to New
York-based Real Capital Analytics.
Investors also are finding
strengths in smaller metros such as Albuquerque, N.M., Denver, and Phoenix.
Lexington, Ky., for example, has a stable economic base from the University of
Kentucky, not to mention strong employers such as Toyota. University enrollment
hit a record 29,000 students last fall, while Toyota recently invested more
than $500 million to expand its Lexus production. “There are a lot of positive
things that are going on here. You have a highly educated workforce and a
population here that appeals to a lot of investors,” says Bruce R. Isaac, CCIM,
SIOR, senior vice president at NAI Isaac in Lexington.
Toyota’s expansion has
created an influx of suppliers and increased the demand for industrial space.
During the first half of last year alone there was a 27 percent reduction of
industrial vacancy in Lexington, Isaac notes. In fact, there is very little
industrial vacancy in central Kentucky. “So, you are seeing more and more
people interested in those industrial facilities,” Isaac says.
Greenville, S.C., also has
benefited from the rebound in manufacturing. In addition, the local economy
draws on diversity from other industries such as banking and engineering, as
well as a growing population. “A lot of these investors see that they can not
only make their return, but long-term, their underlying investments are safe,”
says Brian Young, CCIM, SIOR, a senior vice president and managing broker at
Cushman & Wakefield/Thalhimer in Greenville. “I think that is critical as
they look at these secondary and tertiary markets.”
Although investors are
dipping a toe in the water in secondary and even tertiary markets, there are
definite limits to their tolerance for risk: Certain property types and
locations still have a difficult time attracting buyers. Greenville, for
instance, has a significant number of pre-fab metal industrial buildings. “We
have seen a real reluctance from investors to purchase those metal buildings,”
Young notes. Buyers want institutional quality construction, because they are
not just thinking about the return they can get today. They also are planning
ahead to their exit strategy in the future, he adds.