The Office Market Had It Hard in 2023. Next Year Looks Worse.
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The Office Market Had It Hard in 2023. Next Year Looks Worse.

Office building owners are losing hope that occupancy rates will rebound soon

Wed, Dec 20, 2023 8:53amGrey Clock 4 min

Office building owners, hammered by falling demand and high interest rates, struggled in 2023. But they mostly managed to stay afloat.

That is going to be a lot harder to do next year.

Many landlords have been able to extend their loans, often by putting in more capital. But a lot of those extensions are now expiring, and owners are losing hope that occupancy rates will rebound soon.

That means many more office landlords will be compelled to pay off their mortgages, sell their properties at a steep discount or hand their buildings over to their creditors.

“In 2024, it’s game time,” said Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, a major owner of office buildings in the New York region. “Owners and lenders are going to have to come to terms as to where values are, where debt needs to be and right-sizing capital structures for these buildings to be successful.”

Office demand shows no sign of returning to pre pandemic levels. While the number of full-time remote employees has dwindled, hybrid workplace policies look here to stay. In the fourth quarter, 62% of U.S. businesses allowed employees to work from home some days of the week, up from 51% in the first quarter, according to Scoop Technologies.

Return-to-office rates also stalled for most of 2023. Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes in 10 major U.S. cities, said that average office attendance is about half of its pre pandemic level., which tracks mobile phone data, puts it in the 60% to 65% range. But it also said the return rate has topped out.

The office market has shown “some monthly fluctuations but little real change in the overall trajectory,” said in a November report.

The U.S. office vacancy rate stands at a record 13.6%, up from 9.4% at the end of 2019, according to data firm CoStar Group. The firm is forecasting it will rise to 15.7% by the end of 2024 and will peak above 17% by the end of 2026.

That vacancy rate is poised to push higher because nearly half of office leases signed before the pandemic haven’t expired, CoStar said. When they do, many of the businesses will likely take less space than they are currently occupying, whether they are renewing or relocating.

Take the case of Chicago law firm Neal Gerber Eisenberg, which signed one of the city’s largest 2023 office leases earlier this fall. The firm, which has grown steadily throughout the pandemic, adopted a policy that requires employees to work from the office at least eight days a month. Neal Gerber leased 90,000 square feet at its new location, down from the 113,000 square feet it will be giving up.

Beyond the longer-term decline in demand, office landlords are still contending with high interest rates. Landlords that have to refinance debt borrowed when rates were at historic lows will face much higher borrowing costs as high vacancy is putting rents and incomes under pressure.

In recent weeks, inflation has been declining and the Federal Reserve is likely to ease interest rates in 2024. That will soften the blow. But landlords still face a financial squeeze, analysts say.

“If you have a mortgage that’s expiring at 3% or 4%, there’s no way you’re refinancing at 3% or 4%,” said Steve Sakwa, an analyst with Evercore ISI. Even though rates have come down, he added, property owners are still looking at rates that could be double their expiring rates to refinance.

Not all the signals are bleak for the office market in 2024. Demand is still strong for the highest quality and best-located space in many markets from tenants willing to pay high rents to encourage employees to return to offices.

Developers have retreated from new construction in the sector, so there’s little competition from new supply. The 30 million square feet in office construction starts in 2023 was the lowest amount since 2010, according to CoStar.

Cities such as San Francisco, New York and Boston are lowering costs and streamlining the process for converting obsolete office buildings into apartments. While this isn’t expected to result in a big decline in vacancy, the actions might bring more activity to business districts, giving a psychological boost to downtown landlords and businesses.

But the steadily rising number of owners who are defaulting on their mortgages because of falling rent rolls looms over the market. The delinquency rate of bank loans and loans converted into commercial mortgage-backed securities currently is over 6% compared with below 1% before the pandemic hit, according to data firm Trepp.

High delinquencies combined with the dismal office outlook already have convinced some owners to hand properties back to lenders or sell for sharply discounted prices.

In Stamford, Conn., the owner of One Stamford Forum, a 500,000-square-foot building whose tenants include troubled Purdue Pharma, this fall gave the building back to its creditors, according to Trepp. In San Francisco, buyers have purchased office buildings like 60 Spear Street and 350 California Street for fractions of what they were worth before the pandemic.

Trepp is projecting that the office delinquency rate could be over 8% by the second half of next year. As more landlords default, the new owners that replace them—buying in at greatly reduced prices—will likely put more pressure on the market because they’ll be able to charge lower rents and still make a profit.

“What could be catastrophic is if you start seeing corporate profit pressures leading to continued or accelerated pace of office downsizing,” said Stephen Buschbom, Trepp’s research director.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Our refrigerators, washing machines and ovens can do more than ever, from producing symmetrical ice cubes to remotely preheating on your commute home. The downside to all these snazzy features is that the appliances are more prone to breaking.

Appliance technicians and others in the industry say there has been an increase in items in need of repair. Yelp users, for example, requested 58% more quotes from thousands of appliance repair businesses last month than they did in January 2022.

Those in the industry blame a push toward computerisation, an increase in the quantity of individual components and flimsier materials for undercutting reliability. They say even higher-end items aren’t as durable.

American households spent 43% more on home appliances in 2023 than they did in 2013, rising from an inflation-adjusted average of $390 to $558, according to Euromonitor International. Prices for the category declined 12% from the beginning of 2013 through the end of 2023, according to the Labor Department.

One reason for the discrepancy between spending and prices is a higher rate of replacement, say consumers, repair technicians and others. That’s left some people wishing they had held on to their clunky ’90s-era appliances and others bargaining with repair workers over intractable ice makers and dryers that run cold.

“We’re making things more complicated, they’re harder to fix and more expensive to fix,” says Aaron Gianni, the founder of do-it-yourself home-repair app Plunjr.

Horror stories

Sharon J. Swan spent nearly $7,000 on a Bosch gas range and smart refrigerator. She thought the appliances would last at least through whenever she decided to sell her Alexandria, Va., home and impress would-be buyers.

That was before the oven caught fire the first time she tried the broiler, leading to a 911 call and hasty return. The ice-maker in the refrigerator, meanwhile, is now broken for the third time in under two years. Bosch covered the first two fridge fixes, but she says she’s on her own for the latest repair, totalling $250, plus parts.

“I feel like I wasted my money,” says the 65-year-old consultant for trade associations.

A Bosch spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that the company has been responsive to Swan’s concerns and will continue to work with her to resolve ongoing issues. “Bosch appliances are designed and manufactured to meet the highest quality standards, and they are built to last,” she said.

Kevin and Kellene Dinino wish they had held on to their white dishwasher from the ’90s that was still working great.

The sleeker $800 GE stainless steel interior dishwasher they purchased sprang a hidden leak within three years, causing more than $35,000 worth of damage to their San Diego kitchen.

Home insurance covered the claim, which included replacing the hardwood down to the subfloor and all their bottom cabinetry, but kicked the Dininos off their policy. The family also went without access to their kitchen for months.

“This was a $60 pump that was broken. What the hell happened?” says Kevin, 45, who runs a financial public-relations firm.

A GE Appliances spokeswoman said the company takes appliance issues seriously and works quickly to resolve them with consumers.

Increased complexity

Peel back the plastic on a modern refrigerator or washing machine and you’ll see a smattering of sensors and switches that its 10-year-old counterpart lacks. These extra components help ensure the appliance is using only the energy and water it needs for the job at hand, technicians say. With more parts, however, more tends to go wrong more quickly, they say.

Mansoor Soomro, a professor at Teesside University, a technical college in Middlesbrough, England, says home appliances are breaking down more often. He says that manufacturers used to rely mostly on straightforward mechanical parts (think an on/off switch that triggers a single lever). In the past decade or so, they’ve transitioned to relying more on sophisticated electrical and computerised parts (say, a touch screen that displays a dozen different sensor-controlled wash options).

When a complicated machine fails, technicians say they have a much harder time figuring out what went wrong. Even if the technician does diagnose the problem, consumers are often left with repairs that exceed half the cost of replacement, rendering the machine totalled.

“In the majority of cases, I would say buying a new one makes more economic sense than repairing it,” says Soomro, who spent seven years working at Siemens , including in the home-appliances division.

These machines are also now more likely to be made with plastic and aluminium rather than steel, Soomro says. High-efficiency motors and compressors, too, are likely to be lighter-duty, since they’re tasked with drawing less energy .

A spokeswoman for the Association for Home Appliance Manufacturers says the industry has “enhanced the safety, energy efficiency, capacity and performance of appliances while adding features and maintaining affordability and durability for purchasers.” She says data last updated in 2019 shows that the average life of an appliance has “not substantially shifted over the past two decades.”

When simpler is better

Kathryn Ryan and Kevin Sullivan needed a new sensor to fix their recently purchased $1,566 GE Unitized Spacemaker washer-dryer. GE wasn’t able to fix the sensor for months, so the couple paid a local technician $300 to get the machine working.

The repairman also offered them a suggestion: Avoid the sensor option and stick to timed dries.

“You should be able to use whatever function you please on a brand new appliance, ideally,” says Sullivan, a 32-year-old musician in Burbank, Calif.

More features might seem glamorous, Frontdoor virtual appliance tech Jim Zaccone says, but fewer is usually better.

“Consumers are wising up to the failures that are happening and going, ‘Do I really need my oven to preheat while I’m at the grocery store?’” jokes Zaccone, who has been in the appliance-repair business for 21 years.

He just replaced his own dishwasher and says he bought one with “the least bells and whistles.” He also opted for a mass-market brand with cheap and readily available parts. Most surprisingly, he chose a bottom-of-the-line model.

“Spending a lot of money on something doesn’t guarantee you more reliability,” says Zaccone.


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