The looming office space real estate shortage. Yes, shortage

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There is more pain to come in the office real estate market across the U.S., with maturing debt needing to be refinanced and a wave of expiring leases, but there is also what may seem at first brush to be a counter-intuitive message being sent to top tier companies by real estate intelligence company CoStar Group: prepare for an office space shortage.

You read that right: amid a commercial real estate market across U.S. downtowns being described in apocalyptic terms, CoStar sees a shortage on the horizon, with one key caveat for top companies to bear in mind.

The more office real estate that disappears – an estimate recently given to CNBC by the CEO of major bondholder TCW Group forecasts up to one-third of office real estate still to be wiped out – the more the major players in the market will be vying for the top tier of Class A commercial space. Add to that the fact that more companies are headed back to an in-office reality closer to pre-pandemic expectations, and competition may be hotter than the weaker end of the market suggests.

CoStar’s call of an upcoming office space shortage is predicated on a look at the current data on leasing and construction activity compared to recent market history. As office occupiers scrutinize their footprints more carefully, and in the months ahead leases that were executed before the pandemic continue to approach expiration, newly constructed buildings aged 0-3 years are proving to be the winners. They have attracted over 175 million square feet of net new occupancy since the beginning of 2020, an average of 12.7 million square feet per quarter. By comparison, the quarterly average from 2011-2019 for similar properties was 11.7 million square feet. From 2008-2010, during the Great Recession, the quarterly average was 13.6 million square feet.

“Modern, premium office space remains in demand, just as it has historically, even during difficult economic times,” said Phil Mobley, national director of office analytics at CoStar Group.

Google’s mixed-use campus on New York’s Hudson River that opened in 2022 includes a two-acre rooftop and public gathering spaces.

Photos courtesy of Google

And the supply will increasingly not be there to support the demand. Currently, buildings aged 0-3 years comprise 2.4% of office inventory in the U.S. While that is in line with the average from 2015-2019, Mobley says construction has slowed dramatically. Less than 30 million square feet has broken ground in 2023, making this year the lowest for construction starts since 2011. Today, there is about 200 million square feet of office space in buildings aged 0-3 years, but that figure will be under 150 million by early 2026 and under 100 million by the middle of 2027. At that point, it will represent only about 1% of inventory. Even in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2013-2014, buildings aged 0-3 years never represented less than 1.3% of inventory.

“The very type of space that tenants have historically demanded most — even during recessions — will be in short supply,” Mobley said.

This isn’t to say there won’t be more headlines about trophy buildings being sold at discounted values. But those transactions also mean that now is a time when tenants are getting good deals. The number of new lease transactions is higher this year on a quarterly basis than the 2015-2019 period. Deals are smaller in square footage – which explains why overall market vacancy is up – and expiring leases are part of the reason for the uptick, too. Still, the deals are “highly concentrated” in the premium space, Mobley said.

Meanwhile, landlords of iconic, trophy buildings are offering sweeteners, from bigger contributions to custom buildouts to the number of months offered rent-free. It’s not clear how long that will last, though. As more top buildings are sold at depressed values, investors mark down the value of property holdings, and bonds go bad, new owners can make their finances work with attractive terms to tenants. But for building owners who will need to refinance in the near-term, that game is ending. Case in point: a recent deal for the City of Los Angeles to occupy multiple floors in the iconic Gas Co. Tower, a deal which would have comprised 11% of new quarterly leasing activity in the market, was rejected by bondholders.

Billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene explained his bet on new towers in West Palm Beach, amid the correction he sees coming for much commercial real estate in the next two years, in the following way during a recent CNBC interview: “There will just be office buildings with no tenants whatsoever in markets where brand new building will get the tenants. … Some of the older buildings just won’t have any tenants at all, and if there’s no tenant at all for a prolonged period of time, that paper [the bonds] will be worth next to nothing.”

The U.S. housing market never recovered from the financial crash as measured by the inventory levels today, one factor responsible for pushing up home values across the country. But Mobley says there is a better parallel for the office space crash: the retail washout, which was overbuilt, and has not been built much since e-commerce disrupted the sector. While Class B malls are still sitting vacant, high-end “experiential” retail is not.

“That’s the parallel for office,” Mobley said.

CoStar estimates there is still over half of leases executed before 2020 set to expire. “As companies face these renewal decisions, they are now laser-focused on utilization,” he said. That implies a world in which tenants may need less space, but as they continue to make the case for the world of work to return to pre-pandemic in-person collaboration, competition for the best square footage in the market is heading higher.

For companies facing lease expirations that believe in the notion of the office as a tool to help maximize workforce effectiveness and, as a result, want to be in premium locations  — and not the 10-20 year-old iconic buildings but the newest properties – some of the best opportunities are now, Mobley said.

Billionaire investor Jeff Greene: We're in the first inning of the commercial real estate correction

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