Battle of the Bulge – Buying Down the Bloat

bloatedWant to know what I think? There is not going to be some cataclysmic, spin-on-a-dime turn-around for small and medium commercial real estate owners. This time, like no other time, we are in a long haul climb up the cliff face of mount cash-flow.

We are in a kind of real estate battle of the bulge. We have too much space (the bulge) and not enough users to quickly alleviate the bloat of vacancies. It is true, we have seen some spurts and sputters, which have caused some to optimistically think and even say, “The recession is over, we’re coming out of it.”

Everything I read, hear, view and all of my experiences at the street level are telling me the battle of the bulge is not over and the trick of trade for survivors is the ability to buy cash flow and to buy it now. Yes, you heard it correctly. Owners need to change their posture and assume a position of cash flow deal makers.

Before you write me off, think about it carefully. Owners have always been engaged in buying cash flow. CRE 101 is cash flow as the basis for property value. Owners have always traded space and rate for cash flow. Our problem is that we are in various stages of denial about the current cost we must pay to purchase cash flow.

As unemployment increases, consumer spending diminishes and for small and medium size investors such a climate can produce a lot of sleepless nights. As the current credit crunch begins to squeeze owner refinancing options and new lending diminishes to close to a 50 year low, we are once again going to have to buy the limited cash flow at discounted pricing in order to sustain our properties.

Let me give you an example of the battle of the bulge and the principle of buying cash flow. Let’s suppose a particular geographic market area has 1,000,000 square feet of total retail space with a current vacancy rate of 27%. Let’s introduce a tenant default rate of 12% per annum into the equation (not far off the current mark).

Finally, let’s assume a net absorption rate of 5% per annum, meaning we have 50,000 s.f. per year being leased. This equates to a sustained vacancy rate of 220,000 s.f. vacancy growing at 7% per year.

Furthermore, it means that we have less cash flow to buy, therefore the cost of the cash flow increases over time, i.e., owners pay more for each tenant’s cash flow in order to remain competitive. Bottom line, NOI drops and NOI is our commodity.

In a five-year market of the kind we are experiencing the numbers look like this:

  • Year 1 end = 220,000 s.f. vacancy
  • Year 2 end = 235,400 s.f. vacancy
  • Year 3 end = 251,878 s.f. vacancy (we are now at 25% vacancy)
  • Year 4 end = 269,509 s.f. vacancy
  • Year 5 end = 288,375 s.f. vacancy

During this transition, which is exactly the type of transition we are currently experiencing, the cost for limited cash flow is increased due to the economic principle of supply and demand. We are leasing but not fast enough.

Owners ALWAYS buy cash flow, make no mistake about it. My point is that it is going to cost us more to buy the decreasing cash flow available from the decreasing tenant pool.

Fourteen dollar retail leases are becoming $10 or $11 dollar leases. We are paying $3 to $4 more per square foot to purchase the shrinking number of tenants. Tenants know this and they are not selling their cash flow easily. Like the game of golf, the lowest scores are winning.

The ugly side of this is the certainty of diminishing property values. It is a reality we are going to have to learn to live with for another 24-36 months. Those who wait too long to adjust their pricing and leasing models will certainly loose the battle for the limited tenant pool.

Donald Teel is a Senior Associate with Arizona Commercial, an Arizona commercial brokerage and property management firm. Need more information? Please call 1-877-777-9100 or, if you prefer, you may email Donald Teel

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