EXCLUSIVE: DLA Piper Survey Finds CRE Executives Bullish on Coming Year

DLA Piper unveils the final results of its 2014 State of the Market Survey, prior to the launch of its Real Estate Global Summit.
Jay Epstien

The steadily improving economy and flood of capital for investments are top reasons why 89 percent of commercial real estate executives responding to the 2014 DLA Piper State of the Market Survey said they are feeling bullish for the year ahead. That’s up from 85 percent last year and 30 percent from three years ago, following the recession.

“I think the job growth coupled with the historically low interest rates and abundance of capital are why executives and real estate business leaders are feeling very good about where things sit,” DLA Piper U.S. Real Estate Practice Chair Jay Epstien told Commercial Property Executive.

In other findings, healthcare assets were named the most attractive investment sector, apparently ending the era of dominance for multi-family properties as the leading asset class.

Germany was named the most attractive market for international investment, edging out perennial favorites Brazil, China and Mexico. Meanwhile, more foreign money is expected to spur investment here in the United States rather than private equity.

Other hot topics were the future of crowdfunding for real estate investments,  the impact of growth in shared office spaces, revitalization of urban downtowns and the growing influence of e-tailing. CRE leaders are also watching to see how global events affect investments.

In August, DLA Piper emailed a survey to CEOs, COOs, CFOs and other senior executives, like real estate developers, debt providers, investors and third-party brokerage, property and asset managers. The law firm received 158 responses. The survey coincides with DLA Piper’s 2014 Real Estate Global Summit, which will be held at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago tomorrow.

For the first time since the survey began in 2005, Germany was selected as the top international destination for investing. Epstien and Jim Fetgatter, chief executive of the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate, said they were initially surprised because Germany had never placed in the top four, but both said it made sense because of the stability of the German economy.

“The U.S. is fully priced. London is overpriced. Germany is the driver of the EU economy,” Fetgatter said in the report. “It’s safe, it’s secure, but it’s still poised to recover.”

Brazil placed second, followed by China, Mexico and Ireland in the top five. Spain came in at No. 7, and Epstein said his firm has heard from clients interested in opportunistic investing that Spain and Italy are two countries they are “actively investing in.”

While China remains in the top four, Epstien said executives expressed concerns that slower growth in China over the next year was the top international issue that could impact the commercial real estate market in the United States, followed by Middle East instability and Russian incursion in Crimea and Ukraine.

Even though China is still the fastest-growing country, Epstien said CRE leaders are “finding it’s not that easy to invest in an economy that is that far away with a government that is run in a very different way.”

But the Chinese and other foreign investors are making big deals here in the U.S., particularly in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. Of those responding to the survey, 37.4 percent said foreign investors were expected to be the most active in the U.S. in the next year. Pension funds followed with 27.9 percent, private equity with 21.1 percent, individual investors with 8.1 percent and REITs with 5.4 percent. The report drilled down further and found 45 percent of lender respondents felt strongly foreign investors would be most active, while 36 percent of third-party brokerage respondents picked private equity. Last year, 29 percent of the respondents chose private equity as the most active investors, 26 percent said foreign investors and 23 percent said pension funds.

Epstien said “enormous money” has been coming into the U.S. for the last 18 to 24 months from foreign investors. “They are not buying small assets,” he told CPE. “They’re spending $1 billion at a clip. If you have the right asset to sell, you’ve got terrific interest in seeing the foreign money come in.”

Rivers of Money

The report also notes that there are “rivers of money running through the healthcare industry,” as that sector was named the most attractive investment opportunity for the next year. Epstien credits the aging population, beginning of “Obamacare” and the focus of top healthcare REITs for the growth. But he noted that multi-family is still a strong investment and probably has “the best access to capital.”

“There is still enormous activity in multi-family,” he said. “The survey confirms that.”

Much of that growth is in cities like Washington, D.C., which previously did not have a lot of multi-family development in downtowns, Epstien said. “It’s about a movement to be back in livable communities that are accessible to a lot of things close by and not a car-driven society,” Epstien said, adding much of that change is being spurred by young professionals who want to live and work in cities.

The younger generation is also behind one of the big trends to emerge from the study this year: the rise of flexible and collaborative office spaces that the DLA Piper survey expects to “significantly shake up property markets.” The report found these open spaces, once a phenomenon of the technology workplace culture, have spread across the U.S. and are expected to become more prevalent.

“A whopping 89 percent of the executives believe the movement toward flexible and collaborative office spaces will have an effect on commercial real estate, from the design and development of office buildings to the leasing market,” the report stated.

While an overwhelming majority of those surveyed said the open spaces movement will drive change in office development and leasing, they don’t expect the current leaders such as WeWork, Rocket Space and LiquidSpace to “dominate the demands of the office market or shape it in a meaningful way.” Only 37 percent believe those providers will control the segment.

Epstien wasn’t so quick to dismiss them. “WeWork would say they are very far ahead of their competitors today,” he noted.

But he also said traditional office leasing companies like SL Green Realty Corp. and Vornado Realty Trust are ahead of the trend by offering flexible and collaborative work spaces in buildings they own. “I think there is going to be a lot of activity in this space,” Epstien said.

The rise of e-tailing is also shaking up the industry. Even though it comprises about 10 percent of all retail sales, more than 80 percent of respondents said it will affect the real estate market. Epstein said it already has, noting the shrinking of many store footprints like Staples. He added that big-box retailers locating in urban areas like Target and Home Depot are opening 25,000-square-foot stores rather than a more traditional 117,000 square feet.

Amazon and other e-tailers focusing on same-day or next-day delivery are also changing the landscape because they need more distribution centers to meet those sales, he said.

For the first time, DLA Piper asked CRE executives whether crowdfunding would gain momentum and become a “significant source of commercial real estate investment” in the next three to five years. Nearly half, 45 percent, said they don’t believe it will be, but about 30 percent were neutral.

“This could indicate they’re simply unsure—but it would also appear to signal that they’re not ready to write off this innovative form of financing just yet,” the report stated.

Epstien said there is some hesitation because it’s “the new kid on the block that’s just getting traction.” He predicted that, at least initially, crowdfunding will impact smaller CRE deals.