From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Distressed Real Estate

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In 2021, and perhaps beyond, the market is going to be flooded with distressed real estate. On the residential side, we learned a lot of lessons about collateral and loan underwriting in the 2008/10 debacle, but nonetheless, a lot of homeowners will fall into trouble by the sheer length and depth of this recession. As of this writing, this recession is only about a half year old, but most analysts forecast continued economic doldrums for at least a year or more to come, even if we get some immediate COVID cure. Generally, it takes months for residential foreclosures to begin hitting the market. With that, one can readily see a significant number of foreclosures, short-sales, REOs, and distressed listings on the market for many months to come. In some sectors, such as hospitality, full recovery (however one defines that) may not happen for several years.

On the commercial property side, business failures — particularly in retail — are already being documented. A recent report by the accounting/consulting firm BDO documents 29 major retail chain bankruptcies thru the end of August, spanning 5,998 individual stores. In addition, 18 major “healthy” chains, such as Starbucks, AT&T, and Office Depot announced 4,228 closures in the first half of 2020. Add to that the untold number of small chains and individual “Mom&Pops” that are going under and we can readily see a lot of commercial landlords with problems on their hands. One estimate, from Yelp, put the current business closures (both temporary and permanent) at 132,580, and those are just the ones that are tracked by Yelp. In June, the proportion of these which will be “permanent” passed the 50% mark.

Graphic Courtesy YELP Economic Report, 2Q, 2020

Of course, the Yelp report focuses on consumer oriented businesses, such as restaurants, shopping & retail, beauty & spa, bars & nightlife, and fitness centers. As everyone knows, office work has shifted significantly to “on-line” and home-based work. Technology such as Zoom, Go-To-Meeting, and Webex have been a God-send, but from a commercial real estate perspective, this creates a significant level of distressed property.

At Greenfield, we’ve worked on a myriad of distressed property situations over the years, including contaminated property litigation, business failures, brownfield redevelopment, and natural disasters. We’ve made a few observations that may prove handy as our clients and friends tackle these problems going forward.

  1. The Highest and Best Use of a property may significantly change. I was interviewed recently for a magazine article on adaptive re-use of retail property for low-end housing. This can be a distinct possibility in some situations, but this use change will have a major impact on value, and even on the mechanism for determining value. In the case of adaptive re-use, the cost of adaptation may exceed the post-change value. Hence, while the change may be desirable, and perhaps even necessary, the financial feasibility of this re-used is under water.
  2. Markets are slow to re-absorb properties after a severe disruption. If one house goes into distress, I might be able to buy it and turn it into a rental. However, if 25% of the houses in a market go into distress, the absorption period can be enormous. Many investors, even sophisticated ones, fail to take this into account.
  3. A really pretty hotel may turn into a very ugly condominium. In 2006, the famed Watergate Hotel in DC was converted into condos, and at the time the value-add was enormous. However, the cost was nothing to sneeze at, either. I once looked at a hotel that had, in its life, been an assisted living facility, an off-campus student housing apartment, and an extended stay hotel. Each of these uses required different amenities, services, and upgrades. By the end, this hotel was a maintenance nightmare, as different systems never fully integrated with each other.
  4. Physical adaptability may hinge on minor flaws. Consider parking, for example. Downtown CBD offices may require little parking, particularly if most of the workers commute by mass transit. However, conversion of that building to condos, apartments, or a hotel may be a completely different problem, and rendered infeasible by the cost of a simple parking problem.
  5. Environmental issues can be a snag. Some uses (offices, for example) may have a different environmental concern or impact than, say, housing. City governments which counted on high-tax paying commercial properties, demanding little in the way of consumer services, may balk at a conversion to a use with a different array of environmental impacts.

This list goes on, and can be very specific to the property in question. Often, the impacted landlord simply does not have the resources to study or enact a conversion, and so has to sell. However, property sales incur a dead-weight cost on top of the already realized loss in value. Transactional attorneys, brokers, appraisers, and others will need a new level of creativity to deal with this mess. Even if we get Covid under control soon, and we all hope that we do, the real estate disruption will linger for years to come.

Written by johnkilpatrick

October 9, 2020 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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