Offices are ‘once in a generation’ buying opportunities

It’s been 30 years since the commercial real estate market was this bad—and that represents a generational entry point for investment, according to a top developer.

The hybrid-work trend and high interest rates have sent commercial real estate values crashing in major cities, with Morgan Stanley warning earlier this year that office prices could face a 30% drop as a result of lower demand.

But Don Peebles, chairman and CEO of Peebles Corporation, said his company looks to develop when the market supply is tight and buy when it sees exceptional value.

“And what we’re seeing here in the commercial office space is essentially once in a generation … opportunities to buy,” he told CNBC on Friday. “Nothing like this has happened since the early 1990s.”

That’s when a banking crisis resulted in hundreds of lenders shutting down, allowing Peebles to acquire some buildings for just 20 cents on the dollar, he added, as properties held by failed savings and loans were liquidated.

In fact, the acquisitions Peebles Corp. made in cities like Washington, D.C., back then were the foundation that enabled the company to develop in other parts of the country, the CEO said.

When it comes to today’s commercial real estate market, Peebles estimated that values for commercial office buildings in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are down 60%-70%, with Los Angeles down 70% or more.

But Peebles sees a rebound coming that developers can take advantage of, if they have the stomach for it.

“Those are global cities that will come back at some point in time,” he said. “So you have to have the appetite to buy, understand how to stabilize the assets based on the current income potential, and then wait.”

To be sure, he expects the market to adjust to the new hybrid-work environment, with the supply of commercial office space declining as many buildings are “converted or repositioned or demolished.”

That echoes what other observers have said. Fred Cordova, CEO of real estate consultancy Corion Enterprises, said some properties will recover while others will manage to hang on, or not.

“And then you have the others that are basically worth nothing—the D class,” he told Fortune in February. “Those just have to be torn down. That’s probably at least 30% of all offices in the country.”

Like Peebles, other players in commercial real estate also see opportunities. For example, Miami-based mortgage lender KDM Financial launched a $350 million fund earlier this year, with a 20% allocation to nonresidential commercial property.

“I think that I’m a little contrarian in that I continue to believe in office,” KDM Financial CEO Holly MacDonald-Korth said in an interview with Fortune earlier this year. “We’re currently in a trough … But I don’t think that [in the] long term, offices are going away forever.”

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