Office present and office past
The economic uncertainty of the past two years has no doubt taken its toll on commercial real estate – particularly in the office sector. With many companies adopting remote work policies, office vacancy rates have risen in many cities, and landlords have faced a difficult market. In some cases, companies have renegotiated their lease terms or decided to sublease their excess office space. This has resulted in downward pressure on rental rates and overall property valuations.
While interest rates remain on the rise and many assets across all classes are headed towards distress, some markets show signs of improvement, while others are feeling the pressure.
However, it’s not all bad news for office spaces as an asset class. While some companies have adopted remote work policies, many others have remained committed to the traditional office setting. Some businesses have even increased their demand for office spaces as a way to comply with social distancing requirements and to ensure their employees have a safe and productive workspace.
While uncertainty surrounds the future of the office as a workspace, the more important question is this: what is to come of the office building?
What is to come of office spaces and buildings?
While office as an asset class has certainly been in the spotlight over the last year or two, it is time to start considering the new realities faced by these assets. We’ll cover this from two perspectives: the office as a workspace, the office building as a commercial asset.
The office – a common workplace…but is it timeless?
Most of us have, or are currently working from an office. A staple and widely accepted workplace setting leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, we’ve seen a shift to remote and hybrid work leading to a dramatic decrease in office utilization and in some cases necessity. The question remains: will this shift to remote and/or hybrid be permanent?
The shift from a largely full-time in-office setting to hybrid and remote was fueled by concerns around social distancing amid the pandemic and happened quickly. As we’ve seen, the return to the office has been much slower, and in some cases hybrid and fully remote work may continue. However, while these settings may be successful for specific roles and organizations, the office itself has been cemented as a standard workplace over time. While the transition back to a predominantly office environment may take time, it is a very likely trend that has already begun to emerge. What remains to be seen is at what capacity will office work make its comeback – will the office be the norm once again, or is hybrid here to stay?
The office building
Surrounded by uncertainty in demand, the next question is what’s to come for the office building itself. Offices come in many different shapes, sizes, and values, and as anyone in commercial real estate knows, they’re present in every market. Along with massive variance in value, these assets carry varying levels and types of (often complex) debt and most importantly varying capability to produce positive returns.
With cheap debt no longer on the table and high amounts of vacancy, many assets are reaching debt maturity and lacking the profits necessary to effectively refinance at current rates. So, what are the options for owners facing tough times amidst challenging market conditions?
Weather the storm
While difficult – one option for underperforming assets is to wait out the current market conditions and hope for a change in office sentiment and interest rates. Assets that are able to stay afloat amid vacancies and tough financing are more likely to become profitable again in the future. In some cases, owners may be able to restructure their financing. This may require demonstrating a viable plan to improve the property’s performance and may involve additional fees or covenants. Further, owners may seek to bring in new equity partners to inject additional capital into the property and pay off the existing debt. This may require negotiating with the existing lender to subordinate the debt or convert it into equity.
Another possibility is adapting the office building. Converting a standard office to apartments or retail, or a mix while possible is tremendously expensive and not always a viable option – dependent on the particular building based on a myriad of factors including: location, zoning, size, layout, etc.
Using some general assumptions – the average office building in the U.S. is around 20,000 sq./ft.. And the costs to renovate an office into an apartment and/or retail can be between $100-$300 sq./ft. It could cost upwards of $6,000,000 to update the average office building before it’s ever able to generate revenue aside from traditionally leased office space. Compare this to a rough estimate of that 20,000 sq./ft. Office asset’s approximate value of $5-6 million dollars and the cost of converting is extremely steep and carries a high level of risk if the newly renovated asset cannot perform and meet its debt obligations.
It’s important to note that while the cost of converting an office building into apartments (or other types of commercial space) can be significant, the potential returns on investment can also be substantial, particularly in high-demand urban areas where there is a shortage of affordable housing. With careful planning and execution, converting an office building into apartments can be a viable and profitable investment strategy for real estate developers and investors.
The future of office
Despite the widespread adoption of remote work, it’s unlikely that the traditional office space will disappear altogether. In-person collaboration and face-to-face meetings are still essential for many businesses, and there will always be a need for physical office spaces. However, the office spaces of the future may look quite different from those of the past.
Owners and investors of office assets must be prepared to adapt or weather the storm of current economic challenges. Like all markets, commercial real estate has its ups and downs. Investors who are able to hold their assets amid these tough times have the potential to see profits return in the future as the economy recovers, and as more workers return to the office. Additionally, there will be opportunity for savvy investors large and small to capitalize on distressed office assets as some will ultimately fail.
The only certainty in the CRE markets of 2023 is that uncertainty is likely to prevail. Investors must remain vigilant and ready to entertain and embrace new ideas and the new reality of the office sector.