Survey respondents signal hopeful signs for commercial real estate market improvements in 2011, according to Emerging Trends in Real Estate® 2011 forecast from PwC and the Urban Land Institute

In an ‘era of less,’ flight to quality accelerates by investors to coastal gateway cities and prime class assets

Washington, DC (October 13, 2010) – After three years of dislocation and unprecedented loss, commercial real estate industry investors and professionals hint at hopeful signs of tempered commercial real estate market improvements, according to respondents of the Emerging Trends in Real Estate® 2011 report, released today by PwC US and the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Survey respondents indicate a lowering of performance expectations, anticipating high single digit returns for core properties and mid-teen returns for higher risk investments. Without ample leverage and attendant risk, real estate assets cannot sustain higher performance, according to survey respondents. The survey finds that lenders with strengthening balance sheets finally step up foreclosure activity and dispositions of properties during 2011 and 2012, helping values reset 30-40% below 2007 peaks.

“The market is predicting extreme bifurcation as the capital flight to quality creates a greater separation between the trophy and less desirable assets,” said Mitch Roschelle, partner, US real estate advisory practice leader, PwC. “Well-located and well-tenanted properties that can generative strong cash flow over the next several years are exactly what buyers and lenders want, according to survey respondents. As a result, prime apartments and office buildings in gateway cities are generating the most attention from the increasing pent-up sidelined capital.”

Debt market loosens further in 2011

The report indicates debt markets thawing further in 2011 as banks continue to strengthen balance sheets, take their losses and step up lending, resulting in higher transaction volumes. Borrowers are expected to have improved chances to obtain refinancing if they own relatively well-leased cash flowing properties. But overleveraged owners dealing with high vacancies and rolling down rents may face more uncertain prospects in the credit markets, including the increasing likelihood of foreclosure.

“Real estate market participants continue to see a gulf between buyers and sellers, however, there is an expectation that the ‘bid-ask” spread will begin to close in 2011 as selling sentiment improves dramatically from last year’s all time survey lows and buyers temper expectations for giant discounts,” said ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Real Estate Finance Stephen Blank. “Investors with cash could have excellent opportunities to seize market bottom plays by recapitalizing cash-starved owners or buying foreclosed assets.”

Respondents to the Emerging Trends cite the best investor bets for 2011 which include:

  • Temper expectations – Buy well-leased core assets and look for 6 to 7% cash flows.
  • Lock-in leverage – Mortgage rates can’t get much lower and cyclical bottom is the optimum time to leverage properties in order to magnify future value gains as property fundamentals ameliorate.
  • Provide debt and recap equity – Players who fill the gap on assets with lowered cost bases can obtain excellent risk-adjusted returns up and down the capital stack, including mezzanine debt and preferred equity, if not loan to own opportunities.
  • Focus on global gateways, 24-hour markets – Everybody wants to be in the primary coastal cities with international airport hubs.
  • Favor infill over fringe – The ‘move back in’ trend gains force as twenty-something Echo Boomers want to experience more vibrant urban areas and aging Baby Boomer parents look for greater convenience in downscaled lifestyles.
  • Patience is a virtue – Transaction activity will increase and more value add and distressed deals will appear.
  • Buy or hold REIT – Survey respondents expect solid cash flowing returns.
  • Buy land – It won’t get any cheaper than now, but prepare to wait for the right development opportunity.
  • Exercise caution on distressed loan pools – They could be a recipe for disaster if you don’t underwrite the assets properly.

Markets to watch

Survey participants believe the 24-hour cities will always dominate and outshine secondary markets. This year, the top Emerging Trends markets selected by survey respondents offer no surprises — Washington DC pulls away from the pack, followed by San Francisco, Boston and Seattle, as the pre-eminent gateway cities. Houston and Denver solidify rankings and respondents show faith in South California’s resiliency, despite recent setbacks. While ratings improved for markets from coast to coast over 2010’s results, the gap between top and bottom continues to widen, and more than 60% of surveyed cities still fall below “fair” ratings for commercial and multifamily investment prospects.

A snapshot of the top five markets ranked by survey respondents:

  • Washington DC: Never far from the top, the nation’s capital is expected to hold onto its top ranking as long as the economy labors. Survey respondents do not expect the federal government to downsize while lobbyists and consultants swarm legislators and agencies hoping to influence or stop regulatory changes. All the activity is expected to cushion property markets and attract investors and no market benefits more from core buyers’ recent flight to quality, driving prices back up.
  • New York: TARP and Fed funds directed at banks helped financial markets and eased job cuts, triggering the biggest ratings jump for New York. As major financial employers enjoy record profits, ramp hiring and foreign investors remaining active, lenders are loosening purse strings for trophy office owners. Apartment rents rebound along with coop/condo prices, which registered only minor drops in top neighborhoods, and retailers begin to fill in gaps in empty streetscape storefronts. New hotel completions could temper a recovery in occupancies and room rates, but tourists and business travelers are back in droves.
  • San Francisco: The country’s most volatile 24-hour market, the City by the Bay now offers investors excellent near-market bottom buying opportunities, particularly in apartments and hotels (ET survey #1 buy), office (ET #2), and retail (ET #3), according to survey respondents. The market also sidesteps some of its state’s fiscal issues, performing better than Southern California. Tech and life science industries flourish around top flight universities (Stanford, UC Berkeley), help attract brainpower, and sustain expensive regional living standards.
  • Boston: This venerable 24-hour city registers high marks for livability, controlled development, and a highly educated labor force, but lacks economic vibrancy. Office rents didn’t drop precipitously off pre-crash 2007 highs, but remain well below 2000 peaks, and local brokers predict only a slight turnaround in 2011. Apartment rents are expected to track back up, as expensive for sale housing keeps tenant demand high for multifamily units, and hotels show life.
  • Seattle: Seattle gets a boost from in-migration to the area adding 160,000 new residents since the recession. Despite upper-teen vacancies after an ill-timed development spurt, office face rents have held up. Industrial markets firm with the Puget Sound continuing to solidify its position as one of the nation’s most important shipping hubs. Housing prices fell as much as 30% off record highs, but now prices tack back within more rational 15-year trend lines.

Rounding out the top ten markets to watch:

  • Houston is expected to come out stronger from the recession than most states, creating more real estate demand.
  • Los Angeles remains an attractive location with Southern California serving as an important gateway to the Pacific Rim and Latin America.
  • San Diego tracks closely to Los Angeles with its desirable climate albeit the gateway status.
  • Denver demonstrates 21st century growth by strengthening its downtown core through a new light rail and railroad hub to serve surrounding suburbs.
  • Dallas attracts businesses with its low costs, low taxes and sizeable talent pool.

Among property sectors, the survey finds that apartments outrank all other sectors — favorable demographics and the housing bust should increase renter demand and some interviewees forecast rent spikes by 2012 in some infill markets where development activity has ground to a halt. Readily available financing from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bolsters buying activity. Core players also like warehouses and infill grocery anchored retail, while full service center city hotels remain the top choice for opportunity investors. Suburban office gets the cold shoulder in the survey.

Now in its 32nd year, Emerging Trends is the oldest, most highly regarded annual industry outlook for the real estate and land use industry and includes interviews and survey responses from more than 1000 leading real estate experts, including investors, developers, property company representatives, lenders, brokers and consultants.

A copy of Emerging Trends in Real Estate® 2011 is available at uli.org/emergingtrends or www.pwc.com/us/realestate

About the Urban Land Institute
The Urban Land Institute (uli.org) is a nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in sustaining and creating thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has more than 33,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.

About PwC
PwC (www.pwc.com) provides industry-focused assurance, tax and advisory services to build public trust and enhance value for its clients and their stakeholders. More than 163,000 people in 151 countries across our network share their thinking, experience and solutions to develop fresh perspectives and practical advice.

Scott Cianciulli / Ray Yeung
Brainerd Communicators
Tel: +1 (212) 986 6667
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Trisha Riggs
Urban Land Institute
Tel: +1 (202) 624 7086
priggs@uli.org