On a Roll, U.S. Office Market Demand Expected to Stay Strong Through 2016

Tenants and Investors Show Strong Preference for Newer Buildings in CBDs
January 28, 2015

With vacancies falling and rents rising in growing numbers of submarkets and slices within the U.S. office sector, demand for office space is expected to remain at post-recession highs for the next two years, according to CoStar Portfolio Strategy analysts recapping the office market’s past year performance.

“2014 was a great year for the office market,” said Walter Page, director of office research, during CoStar’s State of The U.S. Office Market 2014 Review and Forecast. “The keystone mark is that net absorption was up 42% from a year earlier. The fourth quarter in particular was very strong, with over 30 million square feet of net absorption.”

Net absorption of office space rose from 64 million square feet in 2013 to 91 million square feet last year, a 42% increase. Also, the amount of office space absorbed for the year was nearly double the level of new office space added to the market.

Over the next two years, CoStar expects annual absorption to be very similar to 2014, in the 90 million square foot range. The level of construction deliveries should ramp up, as rents have increased across the board and vacancy numbers have continued to tighten, helping make the case for new development.

The strong demand suggests that occupiers have gradually slowed the trend of shrinking square foot-per-employee office footprints, and the shadow supply of empty office space left over from the Great Recession is diminishing as growth moves forward at a very strong clip, added Page, who was joined in the presentation by U.S. Market Research Manager Aaron Jodka and Managing Director Hans Nordby.

The national office vacancy fell 70 basis points from 12% to 11.3% in 2014, the largest decline in office vacancy since the end of the recession.

Vacancies are declining across the board across markets, submarkets and building types and quality levels, with the exception of medical office properties, where vacancies are holding steady at a historically solid 9.6%.

Many markets are now falling below the national vacancy average, with nearly every metro showing year over year declines, with the exception of Washington, D.C., which saw a slight increase, mainly because of strong construction activity.

As demand shifted into high gear during 2014, the percentage of office submarkets with declining vacancies rose to its highest point of the recovery, Jodka said.

“It’s not just a few energy or tech markets or CBDs, this is a feel-good story across the country,” added Nordby.

The vacancy recovery has been particularly strong among newer properties seeing the highest demand by tenants, said Jodka. While buildings 2008 and newer have seen vacancies plunge from a high of 45% in 2008 to nearly 10% in the fourth quarter of 2014, older generation space from the 1980s, much of it located in less desirable outer-ring suburban submarkets, hasn’t recovered at all.

“That’s not where tenants want to be,” Nordby said. “Oftentimes, they want to be in the CBD or the very closest-in suburban submarkets.”

Markets where demand for new properties is especially strong include Minneapolis, Orange County, CA; Nashville, Dallas/Fort Worth and the East Bay area of San Francisco. New product is logging higher vacancy rates in markets where demand still isn’t quite matching the rate of new construction or are still dealing with an overhang from the last cycle, such as Miami, San Jose, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Portland.

Building upon that flight-to-quality thesis is the rising demand for newer 4 and 5 Star space, which is seeing double the rate of absorption of less quality space, Page said. Demand for high-quality space grew 2% from 2013 to 2014, versus 0.9% for 1, 2 and 3-star space.

“Another interesting thing is that at this point in the market cycle is that this flight to quality continues to grow,” Page said. “At this point in the previous cycle, it was not as strong. As tenant footprints shrink, it’s a lot easier to tell them, we’re going to put you in nice space rather than not-nice space.”

Another emerging trend is after seeing most of the action in suburban markets over the last few quarters, activity in CBDs is starting to pick up significant demand and grabbing its fair share of the market, Page said.

Overall demand strength has given owners the confidence to raise rental rates. Rent growth, which closed 2013 up 3.3% year over year, performed even better last year, logging 3.7% growth, nearly double the rate of inflation.

Construction continues to stay in check in most metros. Deliveries of new space rose 9% from 43 million square feet in 2013 to 47 million sf in 2014, very balanced at around half the rate of net absorption. The under-construction pipeline of 81 million square feet a year ago increased a whopping 32% in 2014 to 107 million square feet, 18 million square feet of the activity in Houston.

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