The Housing Chronicles Blog: Commercial real estate downturn to get worse

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Commercial real estate downturn to get worse

Just as the country's housing market is starting to show some (potential) signs of life, the commercial real estate sector is about to go through its own turmoil, impacting the owners & tenants of offices, retail stores, industrial parks and apartments. From the New York Times:

These days, the people who buy and sell office buildings, shopping centers, warehouses, apartment buildings and hotels are hardly in a festive mood, despite some recent encouraging signs relating to the job and housing markets and a recent increase in sales of small office buildings...

The distress is still in its early stages, analysts said. “We are between the first and second inning,” said Richard Parkus, who directs research on commercial mortgage-backed securities for Deutsche Bank. “We’re going to have to get through a very difficult period.”

Mr. Parkus said that vacancy increases and rent declines already mirrored what happened in the 1990s, and until new jobs were created, generating an increase in demand for commercial space and more retail spending, this was not likely to be reversed.

Building values have declined by as much as 50 percent around the country, and even more in Manhattan, where prices soared the highest. As many as 65 percent of commercial mortgages maturing over the next few years are unlikely to qualify for refinancing because of the drop in values and new stricter underwriting standards, he said...

But the damage is expected to be even greater for banks, which are holding $1.3 trillion in commercial mortgages (including apartment buildings) and $535.8 billion in construction and development loans...About $393 billion worth of mortgages are scheduled to mature by the end of next year alone, and an estimated $39 billion more were due to expire this year but have been extended...

The mechanism set up to manage problems with the underlying mortgages is being put to the test for the first time. Some longtime real estate investors who profited from the ready access to mortgages made possible by securitization now complain that the system is impersonal and rigid. Instead of negotiating directly with a lender sitting across a table, Norman Sturner, a partner at Murray Hill Properties, a New York real estate company, said he had been forced to deal by telephone with “a third party sitting out in the Midwest” who seemed indifferent to his problems.

Since the master servicer, which handles the routine servicing of the loan, has no authority to restructure it, the landlord has no way to tackle anticipated problems before it comes into the hands of a special servicer and is already in trouble. “What’s going to happen when billions of dollars can’t be repaid?” said Mr. Sturner, who owns and operates five million square feet of office and apartment buildings.

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