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Landlords Poised to Regain Upper Hand In Recovering Office Market

2011 Sees Office Leasing, Sales and Pricing Improve Amid Growth In Office Jobs and Rising Tenant Demand. Outlook Has Landlords Preparing To Sing: "Our Day Will Come"
January 25, 2012
Office space absorption doubled during 2011 as the office-using job base expanded and vacancies declined across nearly two-thirds of U.S. submarkets, CoStar Group reported this week in its Year-End 2011 Office Review & Outlook. The report presented to CoStar clients found that positive momentum in office fundamentals and the continued absence of new construction is expected to result in higher rents for building owners over the next few years.

Office sales increased steadily through 2011 over the previous year as investors sought to get ahead of the curve, with investor interest spreading beyond the safer well-leased investment-grade buildings in top-tier markets and into smaller properties and second-tier markets such as Seattle, Atlanta and Northern New Jersey. Total fourth-quarter 2011 office sales are likely to match or exceed fourth-quarter 2010’s impressive $25 billion once all sales are tallied.

Total CRE sales, which evened out in 2011 across all property types, is estimated at nearly $300 billion, the highest since the peak of the real estate boom in 2007, and well above the historical average of around $220 billion since 2000.

Although office tenants continue to hold the cards in many markets, (see related topic:"Renew or Relocate? Incumbent Landlords Willing To Sweeten the Pot") CoStar reports the outlook appears to increasingly favor building owners in coming years as the cycle continues.


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"To sum it up, for the office market, we’re just now getting started. Now is a good time to be an office investor," said Walter Page, director of research for Property and Portfolio Research (PPR), CoStar’s analytics and forecasting division. "We expect vacancy to continue to decline through 2015, and when you have declining vacancy rates, you can raise rents, returns are better, and for an investor, that’s good news."

Economy Shows Positive Signs For CRE

CoStar Group founder and CEO Andrew Florance noted that, although overall employment growth has been anemic, the U.S. posted a solid 1.7% gain in office-using jobs, led by technology and energy markets such as Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and Dallas.

Other positive signs abound, including a leveling off in the loss of manufacturing jobs and a bottoming of the housing market, which should be less of a drag on the economy going forward, and likely to be the source for new jobs as replacement demand for single-family and apartment housing fuels expected construction demand.

Meanwhile, corporate profits are off the charts, from $800 billion in 2000 to $2 trillion in 2011.

"Coupled with low interest rates, companies are in a position to invest aggressively in new facilities and equipment. From a CRE perspective, Corporate America is well positioned to invest in their businesses, plant facilities and equipment," Florance added.

Challenges remain, including relatively weak consumer confidence, continued high unemployment, a record federal budget deficit and economic upheaval in Europe. Occupancy recovery varies widely between metros, with "have" markets such as supply-constrained New York City showing 7.4% vacancy and housing bust "have-nots" like Phoenix lingering at a stubbornly high 20.7%.

However, CRE values have recovered to roughly 2000-year levels, and vacancies declined across the country last year. In a strong indicator of an impending office rebound, vacancy rates declined in 63% of the 2,400 office submarkets tracked by CoStar. That’s the strongest number since 2004-05, which roughly marked the beginning of the last CRE up cycle.

In the fourth quarter, CoStar recorded 18 million feet of net absorption, which drives occupancy rates and other leasing fundamentals, and a total of 49 million square feet for the year, doubling 2010’s absorption.

Despite rising concerns about the darkening economic picture that started last spring and continued through the year, absorption rose sharply in the second half of 2011, said Page, noting that companies are leasing space "and smaller tenants, the lifeblood of the office sector, are back."

Jay Spivey, CoStar senior director of research and analytics, said that the office recovery, while not feeling very strong so far for many landlords and investors, is actually much stronger than the recovery in the office market following the collapse of Internet companies and real estate downturn 10 years.

"We have seven quarters of positive growth, and at that same point 10 years ago, we were still seeing negative absorption," Spivey said.

Concessions Starting to Disappear

With improving occupancy and little new supply, concessions like free rent and tenant improvements are burning off in some markets and overall, the long downward slide in average office rents has likely bottomed.

CoStar sees significant upside in office rents, which are currently 11% below their long-term trend, Page said. With office construction at an all-time low, rents will rise and are expected to reach their long-term average between 2015 and 2017.

The analysts singled out "premier" suburban areas located near the urban core in markets such as Bethesda, MD, and West Los Angeles are seeing net absorption recover much more quickly on a rolling annual average compared with CBDs or outer suburban areas. Likewise, a survey of four- and five-star buildings in CoStar’s new Building Rating System, the equivalent of the top Class A properties, shows that the best buildings are absorbing most of the space. One- and two-star buildings, typically Class C, were hammered during the recession and are recovering more slowly.

While national vacancy and availability rates are both trending down, there are vast differences within metros and within the CBD and suburban properties in those markets. In Miami, for example, the CBD vacancy rate is about 22%, while suburban and premier suburban rates are lower. By contrast, Atlanta’s Buckhead premier office suburb, where much new construction came on line as the recession hit, has the highest vacancy at over 20%, more than 6 percentage point higher than the Atlanta CBD.

Investors Explore Secondary, Suburban Markets for Deals

The return of portfolio sales outside the largest markets in 2011 shows that investors, who largely retreated to the safety of well-leased properties in safe core markets like Washington and New York over the last couple of years, are ready to assume risk in certain transactions, with the help of a slowly returning flow of debt financing.

Distressed sales volume as a percentage of total office sale transactions fell during 2011. As distress has abated, prices have begun to rise over the last couple of quarters, spreading from investment-grade properties to smaller general commercial sales, according to the CoStar Commercial Repeat Sale Index (CCRSI).

Pricing has risen in most markets and is approaching replacement cost for some buildings, Spivey noted. Higher occupancy buildings are fetching a higher price premium currently than in 2007, possibly opening a window for investors on opportunities in select vacancy challenged properties.

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