New Construction off to a Shaky Start in 2023

According to a recent GlobeSt article, the US construction industry should prepare for a 3% drop-off in construction starts (i.e. new construction projects) in 2023. This follows on from a complicated couple of years for the industry in 2021-2022, as soaring materials prices and supply chain disruptions kept developers guessing about their next steps. 

GlobeSt was reporting on data from the Dodge Construction Outlook Conference which took place in November 2022. The Dodge Construction Network provides data analytics and insights to construction executives and industry leaders across the US, and the annual conference is cited as: “the leading economic forecast event for commercial construction.”

Multifamily set to slow

As is often the case, the expected decline will affect specific real estate sectors in different ways. GlobeSt notes, for example, that the value of multifamily construction may see a large decline (around 7% when adjusted for inflation).

In their own report on the data, industry news site Engineering News Record (ENR) adds: “In the multi-family sector, starts are expected to finish the year [2022] up 16%, but will drop 9% next year.”

Mixed bag for Retail, Office and Industrial

ENR also notes that the increases in retail and manufacturing starts seen in 2022 are likely to taper off, though it’s worth pointing out that the manufacturing industry saw gains of 196% over the year.

Quoted in the article, Dodge Chief Economist, Richard Branch, noted that despite an anticipated 43% drop for manufacturing construction, “that is still historically a very strong record level of activity.”

Meanwhile the dollar value of office construction is in for a “slight decline” of 1% in 2023, as remote work trends and the tight labor market continue to put pressure on the sector.

Niche sectors still offer respite

Despite these generally downhill trends, other predictions made during the conference include ongoing strong performance from some of the niche CRE sectors we’ve seen rise to prominence in recent years. As Archinect reports:

“While traditional school construction is set to fall, life science buildings and healthcare projects, including outpatient clinics and hospitals, continue to rise.”

These are assets we’ve seen big things from over the past year, and it seems they’re set to continue attracting investors in the year to come.

Recession effects

As the above predictions show, there are still many factors in play that will influence how things shake out for the construction sector in 2023. Arguably the biggest determinant is the likelihood and severity of a potential recession.

In Branch’s words: “We’re walking the razor’s edge here. In our estimation, there is a very, very, very narrow path to avoiding a technical recession in 2023.”

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DEAD IN THE WATER

Joseph Hauman

Do you know where the saying dead in the water comes from? It was originally used to refer to a boat that was stuck out at sea with no wind. No wind means no movement and as you could imagine, no movement is not good for a boat in a large body of water. Over the last 2 years, people have been telling me that the office market in Cleveland is “dead in the water” as everyone from your nephew’s Lemonade stand to Google decide if they need more space or if they even want any space. To be honest with you I believed it for a little bit too. I thought there is no wind in the sails of the office market in Cleveland, but then I allowed myself to take a real look at the industry.

Sailboats are great but they need something to push them. A tide, current, or wind is needed to make a boat with no motor move. I believe that office rents in the Cleveland Market have stayed stagnant because they have been the tide, current, or wind in the sails of our largely vacant office market.  What do I mean by that? Owners in Cleveland often think that they are in competition with each other. They attract tenants to their buildings by offering a low price, free rent, and higher tenant improvement allowances than what they view are their competitor’s. That, in turn, makes other owners lower their prices and it becomes a price war at its most basic level. For years, that has been the reason why the office market continued to truck along with very few new buildings and stagnated rent growth. Lower prices and increasing free rent packages were the slow wind that was pushing the sails of a fundamentally broken office market.

Why are low prices so bad in an office market? The answer is they aren’t when they can be controlled and used to attract quality businesses that will help the area grow. That, however, is not the situation that the Cleveland office market is in. We are in a vicious cycle of rent reduction to attract businesses that don’t choose Cleveland because of the lack of amenities, in both buildings and the city, and because they don’t choose Cleveland both the owner and city miss out on valuable tax and rental income that could be used to pay for new amenities to attract new businesses. This is the reason why the Cleveland office market is “Dead in the water”.

Nobody cared about this issue until the past two years when work from home skyrocketed and tenants didn’t care how much you reduced their rent; they just wanted out. It was no longer a price war because price mattered very little anymore. It became an agent’s job to keep tenants from bull rushing out of a building. Any wind that was ever present, was lost. No hope, right? Wrong.    

Going back to what I had said earlier when technology advanced we learned that we could put an engine on a boat and we had no more need for the wind to propel us. The wind and the sail didn’t matter anymore because the fundamental idea of a boat changed. It was no longer difficult to maneuver, slow, or relied on something totally out of one’s control. Instead, a boat became fun, attractive, and a sign of success for most. Office buildings need a motor. The entire idea of an office building needs to be changed. Low rent and new paint aren’t enough anymore. You need a space that makes people want to come to work. If your building doesn’t do that, then you need to take a hard look at the future success and viability of that building. If you are a landlord you must know your effective vacancy on any building you own. I don’t mean how many people you are getting checks from every month or the number of available square feet you tell your broker to put on the flyer. I mean how many people are coming in and using your space on a DAILY basis? If you have amazing tenants that don’t want that stuff then, congratulations, you have won the jackpot. If you have large amounts of vacant space and are wondering how to change it, then hold on because I’m going to tell you.

ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE

I know most office buildings or parks are purchased as a semi-passive investment which is great and I fully support it, but if you have a high vacancy you need to get a broker, or property manager or go yourself to each tenant and ask what they are looking for. Ask what your building lacks and where it could be improved. If you have current amenities in the building ask if they use them and how often. If you have someone that works in an amenity like a dry cleaner, food service, or gym, ask them how often people come through and what sort of mood they are in when they come in. If you have services in the building you need to find out if people are using them because the service is good or if it’s convenient. If tenants are using it out of convenience then that’s great, but it’s not enough to keep them there at your building. The true testament to the amenities that you provide should be if a tenant leaves and still comes back to your building to use your amenities. Obviously, not all amenities are offered to people that are not tenants, but ones that are, such as an open cafeteria or dry-cleaning service should be good tests. If you ask tenants for their opinion make sure they are valued and listened to. Asking them questions only to do nothing in hopes that they will stay is going to do you no good. If you want to have a low vacancy you need to get things in the building that people want. Let the ideas flow. Everything from a VR gaming setup, driving simulator, or golf simulator might be options that are relatively inexpensive in comparison to renovating a cafeteria or building out a new gym. Take the answers to the questions that you get from your tenants and mix them with your ideas and see if it’s possible. Maybe call me and let me come take a look and allow me to give you my opinion.

If your building represents a sailboat that is quickly or slowly losing wind then pull it out of the water and put an engine on that sucker because if you don’t make a change soon your boat will be dead in the office market water. 

Have something to say? Great, I would love to hear it. Shoot me an email at Joe.Hauman@NAIPVC.com or give me a call 440-591-3723.

Top Tech partner: Harken

Staying on top of new developments and technologies is a necessary, but demanding, part of being a savvy commercial real estate (CRE) professional. With the Top Tech series of blogs, we aim to highlight some of the ones that have caught our attention while also showcasing the work of NAI partners that we feel are changing the CRE game.

Worth keeping in mind is that these blogs aren’t “partner content” or sponsored; rather they’re an opportunity for us to share tools that we think really add value for real estate professionals, from across our diverse partner-base.

That said, we are proud to add that the company featured today is the brainchild of NAI’s own Ethan Kanning. Ethan is a co-founder of valuation software company Harken, which through their “Bankable Real Estate Data” approach, has found a home with some top brokers and brokerages in the NAI Global network.

What do Harken do?

Harken’s software combines automated analytics with a built-in comps (comparables) database to simplify the process of estimating a specific property’s value. This approach allows brokers to complete a Broker Opinion of Value (BOV) in record time, which of course translates into quicker turnaround for clients and more business for brokerages and firms.

The platform’s reports are also white labeled to the broker’s company, allowing them to build their brand and establish expertise in the market.  Meanwhile, for those that need to be Dodd Frank compliant, the process is simplified by having all relevant fields already included in the BOV form. With these functionalities built-in, you can see why Harken is one of our top picks as a tool that streamlines real estate workflow.

A company with a conscience

Another thing worth noting about these up-and-coming entrepreneurs, is that Harken doesn’t draw the line at “just business.” In addition to making top-notch software, they are also committed to keeping DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) top of mind. As one of the sponsors for the Women’s Alliance initiative  at the NAI 2022 Global Convention, they had this to say:

“We believe the healthiest, most vibrant, and sustainable company is one that focuses on DEI initiatives… A diverse team with a focus on self and other’s awareness, helps us recognize both our personal and company biases. Once these biases are understood, we can begin working together to create a more inclusive and sustainable business environment for everyone.”

With their genuine desire to make the workplace both easier to navigate and more inclusive, it’s not hard to see why we consider Harken a Top Tech partner!

Deconstructing the cost of building materials in 2022

Throughout 2021, the cost of building materials was a constant pain point for the construction industry. In an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) earlier this year, prices were found to have jumped over 20% between January 2021 and January 2022. The cost of specific materials like steel and plastic sky-rocketed, leaving construction firms caught between shrinking profit margins and a sharp decrease in available labor.

As we head into the second half of 2022, the question that’s top of mind for building contractors and many Commercial Real Estate (CRE) professionals is: Has the situation improved?

Well, the cost reports from the first and second quarter this year are in. Here’s how it’s looking.

Prices climbed in Q1

Overall, the first quarter was still rough for price increases, with the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) indicating that the cost of residential construction materials jumped 8%. One of the biggest price hikes was softwood lumber, which increased 36.7% over the period.

Meanwhile, a Q1 report from construction consultancy Linesight showed increasingly high costs for resources like copper (3.3% estimated increase from Q4) and steel (4.7 and 8.9% for rebar and flat steel respectively), accompanied by moderate hikes in cement, asphalt and limestone. Bear in mind that these increases are on top of the price surges many of these materials already saw last year.

Materials costs still (mostly) soaring in Q2

Any hopes of price relief in Q2 were also met with resistance, as costs for many materials continued a steady climb. In an analysis of recent Producer Price Index (PPI) data, AGC showed that the overall cost of inputs for new non-residential construction had jumped 1.1% between May and June alone.

The report also noted that the cost of supplies like concrete products, insulation material and some plastics had increased over the same period. In terms of other materials, however, there were bright spots, with lumber and plywood costs dropping 14.7%, while steel saw a more moderate 1.8 % retraction.

Lumber prices continue to tumble

Lumber has proved an interesting case overall, hitting record highs in 2021 that carried through into 2022. And while in March 2022 the lumber market was still showing a massive price spike, by July it had experienced a 50% decrease. At the time of writing, prices have dropped even further, adding an extra layer of complexity to forecasting and planning for new construction.

Outlook uncertain

Overall, the market remains in flux, with some prices still increasing rapidly. In a recent article covering AGC’s July Price Index analysis, Ken Simonson, Chief Economist for AGC stated:

“Since these prices were collected, producers of gypsum, concrete and other products have announced or implemented new increases. In addition, the supply chain remains fragile and persistent difficulties filling job openings mean construction costs are likely to remain elevated despite declines in some prices.”

In a separate post, Simonson pointed out that the Construction Industry Confidence Index (CICI) also dropped 17 points to a value of 44 in Q2 2022. The index, which measures sentiment amongst industry executives, only indicates a “growing market” if the value is over 50.

Heading into the rest of 2022 the situation remains uncertain, but some experts have predicted a drop-off in materials prices. Whether this translates into gains for the construction industry amid other pressures, only time will tell.

SOCIAL: How have fluctuating materials prices affected new development in your area?

Increased FDIC oversight incoming for CRE bank loans

A recent report from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) states that Commercial Real Estate (CRE) lenders are about to come under greater scrutiny. In the report, titled “Supervisory Insights Summer 2022”, the agency adds that there will be an increased focus on new lending activity, along with CRE sectors and geographic areas that are “under stress.”

This comes on the back of a record year, with “the volume of CRE loans held by banks recently peaking at more than USD2.7 trillion.” And while FDIC doesn’t oversee all these institutes, banks supervised by the FDIC account for around USD1.1 trillion of that amount.

Quantifying risk

The agency adds that there will be increased emphasis on transaction testing (i.e. sampling individual lending transactions), saying:

“Given the uncertain long-term impacts of changes in work and commerce in the wake of the pandemic, the effects of rising interest rates, inflationary pressures, and supply chain issues, examiners will be increasing their focus on CRE transaction testing in the upcoming examination cycle.”

Areas of concern 

During 2021, FDIC examiners noted some specific CRE loan concerns, including poor risk analyses and improper assessments of whether loans could be successfully repaid. For example, some assessments failed to check whether a borrower’s business would be able to repay the loan when stimulus or other relief funds were no longer in the balance sheet.

Another area where some banks seemed to fall flat was in conducting a thorough and up-to-date analysis of prevailing market conditions. The agency added that examiners also saw cases where banks have “applied segmentation techniques ineffectively” or “have not drawn conclusions from the analyses performed.”

CRE lending outlook

Specific sectors identified as challenging for valuation in 2021 included some hospitality properties, offices, and malls, along with “some geographies, such as the Manhattan borough of New York City, [which] lagged.” In a Bloomberg article on the report, Brandywine Global portfolio manager, Tracy Chen added that “there are some challenges in pockets of CRE debt, such as offices and retails.”

In an environment where some banks have already announced cutbacks on CRE lending, the additional scrutiny may mean those lenders adopt an even more cautious disposition, especially for sectors they consider “high risk.”

Have there been any effects from changing lending policies on deal-making in your area?