The Real-Estate Downturn Comes for America’s Premier Office Towers
Rents at highest-end buildings fall and rate of leasing slows
Rents at highest-end buildings fall and rate of leasing slows
The highest quality office buildings have had much better success navigating the industry’s turmoil. Now, even premier towers are starting to wobble.
Rents at the highest-end buildings have been falling, while the rate of leasing has been slowing. Tenants have become more sensitive to costs in a world of higher interest rates and lingering concerns about a possible economic slowdown, market participants say.
Owners of the most elite buildings escaped this fate for a while by convincing the market they had created a new class of office tower—one that surpassed the traditional Class A building at the top of the pecking order.
These landlords persuaded blue-chip tenants that reluctant workers would return if only their offices sparkled with lush roof decks, fully loaded gyms and food prepared by Michelin-starred chefs. Owners invested heavily in these properties, which were usually new developments with the best locations, views, air quality and modern designs.
But that strategy is losing steam as more companies have accepted the reality of hybrid work schedules and, for the most part, have given up on compelling workers to be in five days a week.
“The ship has sailed on full return to the office for most companies,” said Rob Sadow, chief executive of Scoop Technologies, a software firm that developed an index that tracks workplace strategies. “They’re not going to go from three days a week to five days a week by making their space nicer.”
That is one reason why few office developers are considering new ground breakings. Current rents don’t pencil out for building expensive space. The U.S. had only 31 million square feet in office construction starts last year, the lowest level since 2010. New buildings will represent only 1% of inventory by 2027, the lowest in at least 25 years, according to CoStar.
“New starts have essentially ground to a halt,” said Dylan Burzinski, analyst at real-estate analytics firm Green Street.
Premium, amenity-rich office space has outperformed in terms of rent and occupancy throughout the pandemic. In New York, SL Green Realty opened a new office tower called One Vanderbilt across the street from Grand Central Terminal in the fall of 2020. It boasted a 4,000-square-foot terrace and cafe and a menu overseen by star chef Daniel Boulud. The 93-story building quickly filled up even though its top asking rents were near record levels at more than $300 a square foot.
That sort of exceptionalism is beginning to wane. Asking rents for prime space in 16 U.S. markets declined in the third quarter after increasing on average from about $61 a square foot in mid-2021 to close to about $70 in the second quarter of last year, according to CBRE Econometric Advisors. They were just under $69 in the fourth quarter, CBRE said.
The share of leasing activity is also falling among the premier towers. The office properties that data firm CoStar Group defines as five-star buildings accounted for 8% of the market in 2022 and 2023, down from 10% in 2019. Meanwhile, new leases in five-star buildings were on average 43% smaller than 2019, CoStar said, reflecting how companies are becoming more efficient in their space use and tolerating some degree of work from home.
In the fourth quarter, 62% of companies offered some form of remote work, up from 51% one year ago, according to Scoop. On average, those companies with hybrid strategies required workers in the office 2.5 days a week in October, Scoop said. In 2021 and 2022, many companies still expected to bring workers back five days a week and were leasing space with that in mind.
Office buildings that have opened recently have done well, but not by One Vanderbilt’s standards. In Boston, for example, Millennium Partners has leased about 60% of the 812,000 square feet of office space that hit the market last year in the new Winthrop Center project with such tenants as Cambridge Associates and consulting giant McKinsey. But rents are about 10% less than what Millennium originally forecast, said Joe Larkin, principal of MP Boston, the developer’s local arm.
Larkin said that Millennium expects to achieve its goal of taking three years to lease the building. “What we lost in the last couple of years is the hope to exceed how we planned this building,” he said.
High interest rates and concerns about a possible recession are also giving companies second thoughts about trading up to higher quality spaces. Moves are expensive especially when borrowing costs are higher than they’ve been in decades.
Cost-conscious companies are noticing that the gap between asking rents in top buildings and lower quality buildings is widening. The result: Renewals were 42% of the leasing volume last year, compared with 31% in 2018 and 2019 combined, according to CBRE.
“If companies aren’t going to have people in the office full time, maybe taking the lower-grade space might be a better economic decision,” Sadow said.
Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.
Hong Kong’s superluxury homes have lost more than a quarter of their value. Prices haven’t hit the bottom yet.
China’s economic slowdown is wreaking havoc on Hong Kong’s luxury property market .
The most expensive homes in the city are changing hands at steep discounts to what they were worth just a few years ago. Chinese property tycoons, struggling to contain the fallout of their collapsing business empires, have become forced sellers. Bank lenders are seizing properties after luxury homeowners miss loan payments.
The average selling price of superluxury homes, defined as those worth more than the equivalent of $38 million, has fallen by more than a quarter since the middle of 2022, said Cherrie Lai, senior director and head of residential sales in Hong Kong at Savills . It will fall further this year as sellers accept reduced prices to cash out quickly, she said.
The slide in prices shows the fallout of China’s sputtering economy, which is suffering from deflation , slowing exports and moribund consumer confidence. A continuing real-estate slowdown in China is proving particularly painful, since the country’s big-spending property magnates were behind some of Hong Kong’s biggest luxury-property deals in recent years.
Hong Kong’s property market has also been squeezed by rising interest rates in the U.S. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and the city’s de facto central bank matches Federal Reserve interest-rate increases. But the U.S. market has held up much better: Nine-figure home sales in places such as California and Florida have skyrocketed , and luxury-home prices in the top 5% of the U.S. market have soared over the past decade.
The luxury homes up for grabs in Hong Kong include three mansions linked to collapsed real-estate company China Evergrande , said Victoria Allan, founder of Habitat Property. Local media reported they were ultimately owned by Hui Ka Yan , the company’s founder.
The three properties, which are adjacent mansions on a hillside road known as Black’s Link, have been seized by creditors. House 10B was sold for about $115 million in 2019 but it is now valued by banks at roughly $55 million, said Allan. It has yet to find a buyer. The other two properties could be put on the market next month, she said.
Chen Hongtian, the mainland-Chinese founder of property-investment firm Cheung Kei Group, bought a luxury high-rise apartment occupying an entire floor in a building designed by architect Frank Gehry in 2015, paying about $49.5 million. It was later seized by a creditor, according to official records. In September, shipping magnate Kwai Sze Hoi bought the property for $53.4 million, records show, below what property agents said was a market valuation of about $87 million at the time.
Homes seized by creditors usually sell at a discount to market prices, property agents say.
A waterfront house at Residence Bel-Air, a luxury residential development, belonged to Mai Fan , the chief executive of Kaisa Group —another developer that defaulted as China’s property crisis widened in recent years. He acquired the house through a company called Million Link Development in 2017, corporate and land records show, at a time when property prices were still climbing. Receivers were appointed to handle the property in 2021 and sold the house the following year for about $46 million, according to the land registry.
In one of Hong Kong’s top sales in recent years, a local businessman sold his house for the equivalent of about $107 million last month, well below the initial asking price of $166 million, according to Savills. It is located on Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, a mountaintop neighbourhood that is home to business moguls and celebrities living in some of the city’s most expensive properties.
“China still has very wealthy people, but they’re a different group now,” said Victor Cheng, a realtor in Hong Kong. “They’re not the highflying property moguls but those who may not have made as much when China grew rapidly but whose businesses grew steadily.”
He said the new breed of luxury-home buyer in Hong Kong is cash-rich and less likely to load up on debt.
Some mainland Chinese homeowners have been forced or pressured to sell—often at around 20% below market prices—because they need cash to pay off debt, said Cheng. Some top executives from the mainland previously bought trophy homes and only used them occasionally without renting them out, he said.
Data analysed by online real-estate marketplace Spacious.hk suggest a tougher time ahead for luxury homes. The number of sale inquiries on the platform for homes priced at the equivalent of $10 million or above fell 45% in the past 12 months, said Spacious.hk Chief Operating Officer James Fisher. Inquiries for homes under $1.3 million and for those priced between that and $3.2 million fell by 8% and 25%, respectively.
The price index for private homes slumped to a seven-year low by the end of 2023, according to Hong Kong’s Rating and Valuation Department.