Saturday 20 December 2014

The commercial property sector's €2bn bounce-back

Overseas players flush with cash have been taking advantage of a market which hit rock bottom this year and which offered great value -- especially in the capital, writes Commercial Property Editor Peter Flanagan

Published 27/12/2013 | 02:30

1 Grand Canal Square
Pat Gunne, Green REIT
Yelena Baturina
Fota Island Resort
Trinity Capital Hotel, Dublin

IF you are working in the commercial property sector, the chances are you have had a pretty quiet few years.

After deals worth more than €3bn in 2006, the market fell off a cliff in the bust, with the value of transactions falling to virtually nil in 2009 and barely topping €100m in 2011.

Things changed dramatically in 2013, however, as deals surged past €2bn. From a virtual standing start, investors began putting huge amounts of cash to work in the Irish commercial market.

Overseas speculators, awash with cheap cash thanks to loose monetary policy around the world but particularly in the United States, started spending money in huge amounts. Most of that money went into office buildings.

When the crash came, Dublin in particular found itself with a huge oversupply of office space that was not required. Rents had plunged, and would-be tenants could have the pick of prime Dublin office space.

This had a twofold effect. First, the cheap rents meant that Dublin, which was still viewed internationally as a good location for a business, became even more attractive to big firms, and as the IDA helped attract more top-level foreign direct investment, those offices quickly began to fill up.

Second, oversupply and a lack of finance in the market combined to bring a halt to new construction. The cranes that had dotted the city skyline for years all but disappeared.

CAPACITY

That was fine while the market was dead, but in 2013 things changed. During the first six months, more than 67,500 square metres in office space were taken up -- an increase of 25pc year on year.

Larry Goodman paid €43m for the old Bank of Ireland headquarters on Baggot Street, Dublin, while KPMG announced it would need a new office with a minimum capacity of 16,722sqm by 2017.

Big firms, such as Sales Force, Bloomberg (Polar Lake) and others took up large amounts of space, and the vacancy rate in the so-called prime areas of Dublin 2 and 4 fell to a near record low of 6pc.

As the supply of vacant offices shrank, rents rose. Still there were no new builds. IDA boss Barry O'Leary (pictured right) warned there were only a couple of offices left in the country that were suitable for firms coming from overseas, and yet there were no new builds. With the banks unwilling to advance money to pay for speculative construction, the market seemed to be showing no sign of life.

Rents, however, crossed €350 a square metre -- the minimum level needed to fund construction, and by year-end there were signs that new office blocks were coming on stream.

Planning permission was granted for Burlington House on Burlington Road to be demolished and replaced with a new build, while plans were revealed for the knocking of Canada House on St Stephen's Green to replace it with another modern building.

By year-end CBRE said rents would have hit about €377 per sqm and they are likely to jump another 15pc in 2014 as demand continues to outstrip supply.

With the Dublin office market thriving, it was perhaps of little surprise when big foreign players jumped deeper into the market here.

American firms were particularly aggressive. A surging US real estate market meant investors who had previously shunned Europe now came shopping, and Ireland was high on their list.

In July, the California-based investment firm Kennedy Wilson paid €308m for a portfolio of buildings here, mostly in Dublin. Among the properties it acquired were State Street's offices on the quays, Stillorgan shopping centre and the Gasworks apartment complex in Ringsend, Dublin 4.

It wasn't the only big player to come in here. As parcels of property that had belonged to defunct Irish property developers came to the market, foreign players were a conspicuous presence.

The Central Park industrial estate in south Dublin came to market in November with a price tag of €250m and the US giants Apollo Global Management and LoneStar were among the bidders.

Also among the bidders were the two new Irish real estate investment trusts (REITs) -- Green and Hibernia.

REITs had long been part of the investment landscape in the US, UK and elsewhere, but it wasn't until Michael Noonan changed the law at Budget 2013 that they were allowed here. Listed investment funds that put money into property, REITs are seen as a good way for giving investors access to the property market without being stuck with an illiquid asset like a building.

Green was the first to move. Set up by Green Property's Pat Gunne and Stephen Vernon, Green attracted a who's who of major investors including bond giant Franklin Templeton, before it bought a Danske commercial property portfolio and Independent News & Media's print works in Citywest.

Hibernia, set up by WMK Nowlan, listed five months later in December, and others are set to follow.

While much of the activity in the commercial property market in 2013 focused on the Dublin office market, there were contrasting fortunes elsewhere in the industry.

The industrial market -- warehouses, factories and the like -- saw some modest improvements. Rents at least stabilised at about €60 a square metre, claimed CBRE, after a dip in the first quarter of the year.

At last, in 2013 there was some movement outside of Dublin, which was very welcome. Deals were done in Cork, Kildare and elsewhere, but the big deals were in Dublin including DHL taking up 13,700 square metres in Ballymount Industrial Estate.

The hotel and pub market strengthened considerably during the year. Perhaps with the exception of retail, hotels and pubs have been hit hardest by the recession. The amount of property being brought to market by receivers continued to stagger, with hotels such as the Breaffy House Resort coming to market courtesy of receivers barely a handful of years after they were built in the first place.

A total of 24 hotels changed hands in 2013, with the undoubted highlight being the Trinity Capital Hotel in Dublin, which went to US billionaire John Malone for more than €37m. Mr Malone's presence was more evidence of the new type of buyer entering the Irish market.

The chairman of media giant Liberty Global, Mr Malone who traces his roots to Cork, is the biggest private landowner in the United States.

When Russia's Yelena Baturina -- that country's richest woman -- paid €22m for the trendy Morrison Hotel in the capital, it was the latest sign of a resurgent market.

The elephant in the room when it comes to the hotel market is NAMA. The state bad bank has more than 120 hotels on its books in Ireland, and there was a real sense that potential sellers were holding off while they waited to see what the agency would do.

Speaking at a hotel property conference in December, NAMA's head of hotel's Patrick Ryan said the agency had flogged 10 hotels for about €160m in 2013, including the Trinity Capital and Cork's Fota Island. He also laid the foundations for more sales to come, telling delegates his employer would be bringing more hotels to the market in 2014, mostly in and around Dublin.

CHINESE

The presence of Mr Malone, Ms Baturina and their ilk at the top end of the market was perhaps not surprising. One trend that emerged late in the year, however, was the presence of Chinese and Russian investors at the lower end of the market.

Previously with little awareness of the Irish market, those investors were tipped off on the high yields available, usually by their children or relatives attending college here. Consequently, Chinese buyers in particular started looking for cheap apartments and houses close to DCU and UCD and which could be rented out for a tidy profit.

By the end of 2013, some players in the commercial property sector were jubilant. Deals had topped €2bn and they were still being done as late as mid-December. When the Irish Independent revealed that One Grand Canal Square had changed hands for €93m, it set a new floor for the office market and meant the likes of Kennedy Wilson were already earning huge profits barely six months after investing here.

Indeed, there are already hundreds of million of euro worth of deals in the pipeline for 2014.

But had the market really bounced back? Retail was still in a desperate position, with vacancy rates outside Dublin still incredibly high. HWBC's Jonathan Hillyer highlighted the "two-tier" market between Dublin and the rest of the country, and that was a fair reflection of the state of things.

Certain parts of Dublin are flying, and certain sectors of the market -- offices in particular -- are roaring ahead. That is still a long way away from proclaiming the market to be 'back'. This year's Budget was roundly welcomed, with the Construction Industry Federation claiming it "laid the foundations for recovery" but it was also notable for the continued emphasis on austerity in the wider economy.

Commercial property had its best year in half a decade in 2013. There is no guarantee, however, that that will continue in 2014.

Irish Independent

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