Office Market Overtime
CCIMs work long hours managing deals in this struggling sector.
The credit crunch has reduced office transaction volume to a trickle and factors weighing on the sector are likely to limit deal making through year-end. Asset values have declined nearly 30 percent from their peak, financing is scarce, and downward pressure on office fundamentals is exacerbating the wide gap between bids and asking prices.
It’s a difficult landscape for investment brokers and their clients to navigate, whether they are office buyers, sellers, or developers. In the first four months of this year, property owners put nearly $13 billion of office properties up for sale but only closed $4.4 billion in transactions, according to Real Capital Analytics. Nationwide, sales volume is down 70 percent from year-ago totals.
Perhaps more critical is a dearth of acquisition financing that hampers deals even where buyers and sellers reach a middle ground on price. Conduit providers have ceased to issue new loans due to a logjam of commercial mortgage-backed securities, and life insurers largely have reached the limits of their real estate lending allocations.
Yet today’s market provides opportunities for CCIMs to apply experience, training, and creative thinking to make deals work, says Stan Watson, CCIM, owner of Watson Real Estate in Ann Arbor, Mich. “You can pick lemons off a tree but you have to dig for diamonds, and right now that’s what we have to do,” Watson says. “We have to work a little harder. We have to be extremely creative.”
Just last year, Watson helped a client obtain $5 million in financing to develop a single-tenant office project on St. Joseph Mercy Hospital campus in Ann Arbor. Local lenders expressed interest in the deal but balked at the requested loan amount, so Watson pooled resources from five local credit unions to assemble the necessary sum. The tenant moved into the completed building earlier this year.
“You need to develop relationships and seek out those lenders that are really lending money, such as state-chartered banks, credit unions, or others you maybe haven’t considered before,” Watson says. “I never thought I’d be pooling credit unions, but in a market like this you start thinking what else can I do?”
What enables some deals to close while others founder? Details vary, but brokers say success comes from persistence and having the courage to take unconventional approaches to problems that otherwise would derail transactions.
Brian Andrus, CCIM, owner of Stonebridge Real Estate Co. in Clearwater, Fla., recently sold two office properties, and both required extra effort. In the first case, an office user was attempting to purchase a former automotive service station that had been converted for office use. The buyer lined up acquisition financing from a regional bank offering 85 percent loan to value to owner-occupants.
But before the new investor could close, the bank halted the deal, demanding documentation that the property had been cleared of underground fuel storage. After an exhaustive search, an environmental assessment firm working with the seller tracked down proof that the tank in fact had been removed years before, and the deal closed.
In another recent example, Andrus marketed an office project that required him to spend 40 hours reworking an existing lease to suit a prospective buyer. “Every deal is taking more care and more time,” he says.
Getting Up to Speed
When the credit crunch began, the highly leveraged buyers that fueled bidding wars in 2006 and 2007 effectively were excluded from the market. The few remaining active buyers demand lower pricing to reflect their higher cost of capital, which includes substantial equity and comes with an aversion to risk that must be placated with greater returns.
Throughout most of 2008, buyers and sellers simply disagreed on prices and trading slowed to a crawl while the market worked out corrected pricing based on existing income streams. Commercial real estate values have wilted in that time, particularly those predicated on income growth projections that did not come to fruition. The Moody’s/REAL Commercial Property Price Index showed office asset values in April 2009 were down 29 percent from one year earlier. Real estate investment trust share prices, which are considered a forward indicator, suggest commercial real estate values will decline 40 percent from peak to trough before the market hits bottom.
After more than a year of job losses and economic contraction, declining office fundamentals threaten to eat away asset values. Whether due to companies negotiating lower rates on lease renewals or tenants going out of business and defaulting on lease obligations, many property cash flows have faltered and further reduced the value of investors’ holdings.
“The office vacancy rate is now a little over 16 percent, and over the next six months it will creep into the high teens and maybe crest at 20 percent by the middle of 2010,” says Ben Breslau, Jones Lang LaSalle’s Americas research director. “Then it becomes a matter of when the economy picks up. If the economic recovery takes hold this year, we might see vacancy rates stabilize by the end of 2010.”
As a result of rising vacancy and softening demand, rental rates are flagging and will drop 8.1 percent on average over the course of 2009, the largest one-year decline on record, according to New York-based researcher Reis. Negative absorption this year will range near 70 million square feet, shy of the 100 million sf of negative absorption Reis tracked in 2001, but enough to make 2009 a painful year for the office market.
Buyers Want Bargains
For owners trying to unload distressed assets, speed is critical, says Brian E. Estes, CCIM, president of Prudential Commercial Real Estate in Jackson, Miss. That’s because the property usually is costing the owner money. Setting a price to meet the market also can be a challenge, because a distressed asset often lacks part or all of its income stream. Without income to use in extrapolating value, capitalization rates become irrelevant, so a buyer is more likely to consider a distressed property’s price relative to construction or replacement cost, Estes says.
Earlier this year, Estes helped a bank sell an 115,000-sf office complex after a foreclosure. He found an all-cash buyer who bought the complex, made improvements, and brought in new tenants. In a separate deal, Estes helped a client sell a struggling retail property that had lingered on the market for more than two years, finally moving the asset at a price equivalent to 40 cents on the dollar. “We knew no one would get financing to buy this shopping center, so the first all-cash offer we got, we took.”
Investors waiting to buy at rock bottom prices aren’t waiting for sellers to come down in price, brokers say. They are waiting for sellers to go into default and foreclosure. Owners are unlikely to sell even distressed assets for pennies on the dollar because they still hope to recover their investment. Banks, on the other hand, may be willing to sell at a substantial discount in order to unload foreclosed properties from their portfolios. “A bank is motivated to stop the bleeding,” Estes says.
So far in this cycle, such real-estate-owned sales are few. RCA tracked only 13 REO sales by banks to third parties in the past year. But distress is mounting. The inability to obtain replacement financing for a maturing mortgage or construction loan is a common source of distress for investors. By this definition, more than 525 U.S. office properties, representing almost $18 billion, have fallen into distress since February 2008, according to RCA.
Estes believes a wave of distressed sales soon will break on the investment market and provide investors with tremendous opportunities to snap up discounted assets. He passes along these words of advice, given to him by a banker earlier this year: “If you are an investor and you buy real estate from anybody other than a bank in the next two years, you probably will have overpaid.”
Against this bleak backdrop, how can CCIMs overcome both the national stagnation in office sales as well as the unique challenges of their individual markets? It’s a good idea to start building relationships with lenders who soon will take possession of foreclosed properties, says W. Darrow Fiedler, CCIM, director of KW Commercial in Santa Monica, Calif.
Even after a foreclosure, lenders may be reluctant to sell an asset at a discount right now because that would force them to realize portfolio value loss. This creates an opportunity for CCIMs to help those banks manage their REO properties, keeping them in operation to postpone the need for a sale until the market improves, Fiedler says. Ultimately, CCIMs will be in a good position to pick up the sales listings, too.
Investment advisers can help a property stand out and succeed by taking a comprehensive approach to its marketing, says Peter Kozel, chief economist for commercial real estate service provider FirstService Williams in New York City. That begins with establishing a business plan for the asset in both the short and long term.
“You have to come up with a consistent argument for the property,” Kozel explains. “What is the property’s reason for being? What niche does it have in the marketplace? What kind of tenant does it attract? What’s the outlook for that tenant base?” Today, not just prospective investors but even tenants are asking for details about a property’s capital structure, he says.
Jeremy Kronman, CCIM, executive vice president at CB Richard Ellis in Pittsburgh, agrees that a comprehensive plan of attack increases a building’s chances for retaining or even increasing its value. “We talk about what’s the plan for each individual tenant,” he says. “Today we’re sitting there with the owner and the lenders and talking about what loan to value they want to achieve. We’re not just leasing agents; we are whole-building consultants.”
Financing remains a serious challenge, and dependable financing can differentiate a buyer from other bidders on an asset, says David Brightwell, CCIM, vice president of business development at Validus Group in Tampa, Fla. He is lining up funding sources in advance to prepare for future acquisition opportunities. “In this market, the No. 1 offer doesn’t necessarily get taken because the seller will accept a lower offer from a buyer that he knows has the ability to close,” he says.
Government-backed lending through the Small Business Administration’s 504 program provides a good source of leverage for buyers who plan to occupy all or most of a new space themselves, says Steven W. Moreira, CCIM, president of Magic Cos. in Longwood, Fla. “That’s one government stimulus that is working,” he says. “A bank can write a construction loan under 504SBA and have a 90 percent takeout guarantee from the government.”
Yet even this oasis of capital may be evaporating, says Soozi Jones Walker, CCIM, owner of Commercial Executives in Las Vegas. In the past 12 months, banks have increased their scrutiny of 504 loan applicants and will decline those who don’t have a track record of strong financial performance, she says. “If a potential buyer has had either flat growth or a little bit of declining income, they won’t approve them,” she says. “It’s a great program; [504 loans] are just hard to get now.”
In this market of stress and distress, CCIMs must continue to bring all of their skills to bear in order to preserve the value of their clients’ properties and help investors identify assets offering the greatest possible return. Despite the persistent challenges of the market and economy, this is not the time to slack off: The best buys are made at the end of a recession and investors make the most money in a cycle during the first five years after recession, Walker says.
“There is no coasting, but there are success stories out there,” Kronman says. “When you do your homework and when the ownership, financing, and leasing are all talking, you absolutely can pull off success stories.”