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Wall Street Journal / Biz - Money

New York’s Commercial Property Slump Shows Signs of Slowing

After a two-year plunge, brokers are optimistic that more deals will take place in 2018.


By

Keiko Morris

After a two-year sales plunge in New York City commercial real estate, signs are emerging that a bottom could be near.

Brokers are optimistic that more deals will take place in 2018, pointing to an expected economic boost from the new law cutting corporate taxes, as well as an uptick in signed contracts in the fourth quarter, which could lead to an increased number of deals completed this year.

In addition, property values, a lagging indicator that usually falls after sales and the number of transactions drop, appear poised for a decline, according to a broker, with the average price per square foot already falling in Manhattan—a harbinger of what could be to come citywide.

Expectations of stabilizing sales in commercial real estate come after an accelerated slide. Sales fell 33% to a five-year low of $31.3 billion in 2017, according to Ariel Property Advisors, a brokerage that tracks sales in all boroughs except Staten Island.

In all, sales of properties including development sites, office towers and residential rental buildings have dropped more than 50% since the most recent peak in 2015, according to reports.

While brokers and analysts aren’t calling for a vigorous bounceback, they do think the worst is coming to an end.

“I am not sure we are turning a corner in terms of transactions, but it’s hard to believe 2018 is going to be lower than 2017,” said Shimon Shkury, president of Ariel.

Since 2015, the gap between bids and the prices sellers wanted has widened, and many sellers decided to wait, analysts said. New developments added to the supply of luxury condominium and rental apartments, putting pressure on landlords to lower prices and offer concessions.

This year, some brokers are expecting the number of sales to stabilize and possibly increase, with prices per square foot declining slightly or remaining steady. However, fears of spikes in borrowing costs as a result of higher inflation could temper those prospects. Concerns over inflation already have caused turmoil, helping send stock market indexes tumbling.

“There is this perception that higher interest rates immediately mean property values go down,” said Barbara Denham, senior economist with Reis Inc., a commercial property data analytics firm. “Right now perception seems to be driving everything.”

Generally a low-interest-rate environment is regarded as good for real estate because of the availability of cheap money to finance deals.

But even in a period of rising rates, the pace at which they rise and the reasons they go up matter, said Bob Knakal, chairman of New York investment sales for real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.

“If [interest rates] are going up because of tangible traction in the economy, GDP growth is strong, jobs are being created at a very good rate, then that is a healthy thing,” Mr. Knakal said, who was among the first to warn about the slump that began around the end of 2015. “If there is that same good activity in the economy, I am going to bet operating incomes are going to be higher.”

Rising interest rates tied to inflation can be good for the commercial real-estate market, Mr. Shkury said. “If we have a building in an inflationary period and rents are going up faster than expenses, then that asset value will appreciate,” Mr. Shkury said. “If anything, in an inflationary period, real estate should benefit over time.”

The drop in commercial-property sales over the past few years is different from past cycles, Mr. Knakal said. The corrections in the past were triggered by more or less external events such as the credit crunch that preceded the 2007-09 recession or the dot-com bubble bursting in the early 2000s. The current adjustment was “self-inflicted,” caused by prices getting too high and too much supply coming onto the market, he said.

Large transactions were especially infrequent last year. The number of transactions larger than $100 million dropped by 52% to 38 and totaled $11.6 billion, according to Ariel. In 2016, $23.5 billion of these large deals were completed.

Manhattan below 96th Street struggled with a steeper decline in sales than Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, falling 37% from the previous year to $17.6 billion, according to Ariel.

Average prices per square foot of properties sold continued to rise, a pattern seen in previous corrections, Mr. Knakal said. The citywide average price per square foot of properties sold increased 2% to $544 last year, and in the outer boroughs it increased 7% to $406, according to Cushman & Wakefield. But in Manhattan, which is usually a leading indicator of what will happen citywide, the average price per square foot dropped 4%.

“It takes 18 months to two years before it becomes common knowledge that the market is in a correcting state,” Mr. Knakal said.

Write to Keiko Morris at Keiko.Morris@wsj.com

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