April 18th, 2017 1:28 PM by Nour Ailan
With year-to-date U.S. office sales volume reaching its highest level since before the recession, domestic and offshore investors alike are extending their search for income-yielding properties into secondary markets and supply constrained inner suburbs.
Markets such as Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta are the new star locations this year, with a select list of the top six highest-dollar office transactions of the third quarter showing a slight shift in trading activity away from San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., which have each seen 20% or more of their total inventory change hands over the last 18 months.
"The office sales market is extremely strong," noted CoStar Managing Director Hans Nordby during the recent Third-quarter 2015 Office Market Review and Outlook. "Investors are finally investing in the country’s office and the industrial sectors -- the business-oriented areas -- which is different from three or four years ago, when trading activity was all apartments, all of the time."
With Atlanta, Philadelphia and Orange County leading the way, deal activity in secondary markets has increased by more than 83% in the first three quarters of 2015 from the same period last year, according to a recent market report from JLL.
As usual, the technology sector is leading U.S. job growth, but increasingly, the financial, professional and business services segments are expanding as firms follow the migration of millennial talent into urban markets, said Julia Georgules, vice president of U.S. Office Research for JLL. However, with office construction still trending water, companies often aren’t finding the large blocks of space they require, clearing a path for redevelopment and other value plays.
"With supply remaining constrained in lots of these urban areas as well as some suburban ones, many landlords are more aggressively thinking about repositioning dated and obsolete office product to meet the growing demand," Georgules said.
The most active office buyers so far this year have been opportunistic and value-add private equity investors, including Amtrust Realty Corp., which acquired Illinois Center, a two-tower, 2 million-square-foot property in Chicago’s East Loop, from Sam Zell’s Equity Commonwealth for $376 million, or $185 per square foot. Although occupancy of the buildings at 233 N. Michigan and 111 E Wacker Drive was only 73.5% at the time of sale, Amtrust revealed plans to upgrade the retail concourse and other areas of the property to boost leasing.
Despite market perceptions of a disconnect between REIT share prices and private valuations as a result of stock market volatility, REITs haven't missed out on their piece of the action in office property sales. In another value-add deal, Highwoods Properties acquired the 896,449-square-foot Monarch Centre at 3414-3424 Peachtree Road NE in Atlanta’s Buckhead submarket, paying a joint venture of JV of New York State Common Retirement Fund and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority $303 million at a cap rate of 4.29%, despite a vacancy rate of 18% at the property.
The influx of offshore capital from Asia and other regions into U.S. primary markets accelerated again in the third quarter, with nearly a quarter of all office deals acquired by foreign buyers, compared with 15% in the broader U.S. real estate market, according to JLL. While New York City and Los Angeles saw the highest investor interest, Seattle has also become a target of offshore capital in the second half of 2015.
In Seattle, for example, an affiliate of Hong Kong-based GAW Capital Partners acquired the 1.7 million-square-foot Columbia Center at 701 5th Ave. from Beacon Capital Partners for $711.5 million. GAW paid $417 per square foot for the downtown property built in 1985 and renovated in 2005.
Senior executives for the two largest publicly traded CRE services firms this week noted the continued abundance of foreign and other sources of capital, and that capital is flowing increasingly into transactions in non-gateway markets.
Cross-border capital flows have also remained strong into the fourth quarter, Bob Sulentic, president and CEO of CBRE Group, Inc. told investors during the company’s third-quarter earnings call Tuesday.
"We think half of the clients that we did business with a year ago were moving capital across borders. Half of them intend to move even more capital this year," Sulentic said.
If forecasts of potential disruptions come to pass in debt markets, particularly CMBS, a sufficient supply of capital is available from other sources to step into real estate, Sulentic said.
“We have been anticipating that the rate of growth in sales will come down to a more sustainable level, and we still believe that is likely to be the case, but we are not seeing deals die basically because of a lack of capital,” Sulentic said.
CBRE Chief Financial Officer Jim Groch said sales activity in U.S. and European secondary markets have strengthened while activity remains quite strong in core CBD markets. The gateway markets also saw plenty of large transactions during the quarter, topped by the largest, the $2.29 billion sale of Metro Life Insurance Plaza at 11 Madison Ave. A joint venture of CIM Group LP and The Sapir Corp. sold the 2.35 million-square-foot asset to SL Green Realty Corp.
In the supply constrained Boston market, Pearlmark Real Estate Partners sold a two-building portfolio on Federal Street totaling 818,231 square feet to Rockpoint Group LLC for $326.5 million, or about $400 per square feet. In the East End of Washington, D.C., Boston Properties sold the 10-story, 325,361-square-foot 500 8th St. NW to Prudential Real Estate Investors for $318 million. At a strong $977 per square foot, PREI felt justified in paying above replacement cost for the core-plus property.
In fact, all commercial property sectors are seeing strong activity, with total CRE sales up 19% over the same period last year, while the trailing four-quarter total for the four major property types is the highest ever registered by CoStar at about $370 billion.
Office property sales volume was up 30% to $115 billion in the first three quarters of 2015 compared with last year, Only the meteoric industrial real estate sector has seen stronger year-to-date sales growth at 32%, and office is the only major property type to log a significant increase in third-quarter sales volume, increasing 14% from a year ago, according to preliminary CoStar sales data.
Over 65% of metro areas are trading at or above their last-cycle peak pricing on price-per- square foot basis. San Francisco has logged the strong price gains since 2013, unsurprising since the Bay Area was already ret-hot going into that time period. However, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles, where activity was very soft two years ago, have seen pricing growth take off at a strong clip since 2013, according to CoStar Commercial Repeat Sales Index (CCRSI) data.