Distressed CRE: It’s a Seller’s Market
As Distressed Property Prices Approach Market Values, Banks See Opportunities To Clear Out Inventories
By Mark Heschmeyer
March 27, 2013
It’s a sellers’ market for distressed commercial real estate and Taylor Burke, senior executive vice president and chief lending officer for the $2.62 billion Burke & Herbert Bank in Alexandria, VA, wants to move his inventory.
“I think this is a great time to buy distressed property, especially that which we are selling,” joked the Alexandria-based banker.
More seriously, though he says, the market is good for bad property right now.
“Banks should be cleaning out their inventory this spring,” said Burke. “I want to sell all my stuff now and I suspect that my conferees are ready to unload their REO now, too. There is finally some demand in outlying areas where most of our problems are located. Not just income-producing any more – even lots are selling at last. Builders need inventory. There are a lot of troubled suburban strip centers and offices everywhere. There has been a sea change in demand.”
But, therein also lies the weakness to the distressed investment market.
I don’t see enough of a price spread to justify the risk of buying an empty or troubled building,” Burke said.
Luke Wood, partner in Haverwood Management, an opportunistic investment and management firm in Austin, TX, concurs.
“If you can find a good distressed deal at a ‘distressed’ price, buy it,” Wood said. “Good distressed assets are selling at market value (or above market value, depending on your opinion) at this point in the market recovery. Equity is looking for limited parking spots and we are seeing many distressed assets sell at non-distressed prices to optimistic buyers, eliminating the high returns sought after for distressed deals.”
Distress Sales By the Numbers
Distressed sales as a percentage of total commercial real estate property transactions have been on a declining trend since the start of 2011, according to CoStar Group data. Distressed property sales made up 20% of the dollar volume of deals in 2011 but just 11% of total property sales volume in 2012 as the number of nondistressed sales soared and the volume of distressed sales fell. There was $16 billion fewer distressed sales last year compared with 2011. At the same time total sales increased 26% from $255 billion to $322 billion.
The number of distressed sales decreased significantly in many core markets. Distressed sales in New York state were down $7.6 billion; down $3.1 billion in California and down $1.2 billion in Texas. Notable also was that distressed sales in Nevada were down $1.3 billion; where distressed sales made up almost entire volume of sales in 2011, they represented less than 30% last year.
However, different marfkets appear to be in different stages of the recovery cycle. For example, while total distressed property sales volume dropped year-to-year in Michigan, Nevada and Georgia, they still accounted for nearly 30% or more of all commercial property sales. But as distressed property sales plummeted in some states, they were increasing in other. Distressed sales were up more than $100 million in 2012 vs. 2011 in Maryland, South Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Missouri.
Lots of Buyers, But Numbers Don’t Always Pencil Out
Ember Grummons, a commercial sales and leasing representative for Investors Realty in Omaha, says there are a lot of buyers looking for distressed product in his markets.
“But the numbers need to make sense,” Grummons added. “Most of my clients require a 20% or greater internal rate of return on a distressed asset, using realistic lease-up assumptions.”
“There is a tremendous opportunity in tertiary markets in the Midwest right now, both for distressed as well as core and core+ opportunities. Markets such as Omaha, Tulsa and Des Moines have strong economies and fundamentals, but are overlooked by most buyers due to the size of the market, Grummons added. “There simply are not a lot of bidders for these properties, and it is possible to purchase them at very attractive pricing.”
Kevin Markwordt, managing director of Transwestern in Atlanta, said, “The likelihood of an investor or owner/user over-paying is unlikely (given rising property values). There are lots of buyers in the Atlanta market and competition is driving up prices.”
But there is a downside too, Markwordt said. “The negatives can be carrying costs and a slow turnaround time. Vacancy rates and rental concessions remain high, which are affecting projected cash flows downward, and ultimately providing a ceiling on the price per square foot (for purchases).”
“The market is appreciating at rapid rate and the longer you hold assets off the market the more value sellers will extract, as long as the carry (expense) does not cause hold costs to outweigh the opportunity an investor will associate with the acquisition,” said Paul Choukourian, managing director of Colliers International in Detroit.
In many markets, brokers say investors have cherry-picked the ‘best’ of the distressed inventory. “The remainder that will come to market has some inherent challenges,” Choukorian added. “The lenders are of aware of the demand and their focus seems to be maximizing the amount they extract. The majority of distressed assets that have the most significant value-add potential do not come to market due to the CRE market turn around.”
Multifamily and retail continue to attract the most interest from buyers. “They have decreased risk and a larger audience that can afford their purchase,” Choukorian said. “These assets are available because they are still seeing mature defaults that will not allow the current owners to procure take-out financing due to changes in lending practices.”
Retail Distress Still a Hot Commodity
Among all property types, only retail property saw an increase in distressed sales volume last year, up 4% in 2012 over 2011, CoStar data shows. Sales of distressed property for all other types declined. Distressed hospitality sales were down 52% year-to-year; office, down 45%; multifamily, down 26%; and industrial, down 22%.
“Retail seems to be a strong interest for distressed investors at present and there seems to be an ample supply of attractive, newer yet distressed retail properties,” said Ryan Phillips, president of Signature Asset Management in Dallas. “Moderately leased suburban office may be an opportunity in distressed real estate. I would stay away from very low occupancy buildings unless they are small and could be filled with a few leases. Any Class “A” product that is moderately leased could be viable — as long as it is priced as distressed and not at very low cap rates.”
Cheryl Pestor, senior vice president of NAI Capital, Pasadena, CA, also noted the strong interest in retail among investors targeting distressed real estate assets.
“I specialize in retail or service-oriented retail investments with about 20% of my sales working with banks on their REOs, and there is continued interest for retail properties if they are well located corner locations with good visibility,” Pestor said.
While there are always value investors in the market, no matter where the market is in a recovery, Pestor faults seller for not pricing distressed property correctly to incentivize an investor for the risk in buying a property “as is, where is, with all faults.”
Capital and Deal Structure Will Define Distress in 2013
“We’re at an interesting point in the cycle of distressed investing with many funds reconsidering the nature of the value investment thesis from a fundamental standpoint,” said Sean Banerjee, managing director of RedBrook Capital, a distressed investment firm in Seattle.
Banerjee sees synthetic credit markets re-emerging after largely being absent throughout the last cycle. He believes funds will be able to leverage newly available credit to acquire higher quality assets, which have been priced out of the range of distressed buyers in this cycle.
“Funds are starting to realize that when you are stepping into great product in great locations and taking advantage of circumstantial distress that isn’t always related to the real estate (such as entity-level or lender-level distress, then you’ve got a better overall picture to sell to investors when attempting to fundraise,” Banerjee said. “Ultimately you’ve got to successfully execute for current investors, but to attract new interest from sellers of distressed assets and investors alike, funds must also be innovative and ahead of the market. Investors don’t want to hear about funds returning capital. They’d rather hear about great deal junkies who have found creative ways to get deals done.”
Market timing is everything, but Banerjee and others understand while current conditions offer a great time for sellers to sell-off distressed assets, changes could be in store for the market down the road.
“Ultimately in the next three to five years, many local and regional banks will have the expiration of FDIC loss-share agreements, which will unlock their ability to sell assets at their sole discretion,” points out Banerjee. “This has the potential to cause flooding in the marketplace, which would saturate a market which has really been driven by competition over assets.”
The Triumph of “Extend and Pretend?”
Up until now, many banks have been reluctant to put to their distressed assets on the market, says Michael J. Tharp, an associate vice president for NAI Norris, Beggs & Simpson in Portland, OR.
Tharp, who works with a special asset team set up to work with REO subdivision, apartment land and raw land for residential, said the strategy pursued by many banks to work with borrowers on troubled loans rather than foreclose and take the loss is paying big dividends as prices recover in many areas.
“It’s become less risky the further we get into the recovery, so the length of time you might get stuck holding an asset with no market lift whatsoever is shorter,” agreed Joshua Anderson, COO of The Roseview Group in Seattle, who invests with and advises institutional clients across the nation.
“In terms of supply and demand of product, it’s more of a seller’s market for bank holders of distress than it is a buyer’s market, especially for notes,” Anderson said. “Geographically the best opportunities are in markets that are showing some initial signs of recovery but that are not as far along the curve as others yet. That applies to most of the Southeast and Midwest. “In terms of strategies, I think many of the best opportunities remain to be had by working through borrowers to approach lenders with white knight restructuring capital; that is generally the best path to getting off-market deals.”
Michael Lapointe, executive managing director and who runs the Capital Market’s in Florida for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank in Miami, said, “Banks, servicers and other asset managers have gotten incredibly savvy in the past few years in marketing assets for sale using a combination of off market, auction and other techniques.”
“Regardless of the medium, the groups that are successful are ones with a clear strategy that is often consistent amongst their dispositions,” Lapointe said. “Lenders that pick off single assets early to close relationships and then mass market remaining notes or poor assets often yield a lower total value then if a more thought out strategy was applied.”
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