SOME PEOPLE (including some who’ve made a living peddling property to others) seem to be just learning, or didn’t appear to fully realise that a property slump is NOT a separate incident from a general economic slump. The reason property sales volumes and values fall isn’t because a hand on some big cosmic clock ticks over to ‘SLUMP’ — it’s all intimately related to the economic cycle… the world economic cycle. How does that affect commercial landlords? Well, bearing in mind I’m not an economist’s elbow, here goes:

As job losses and company closures occur (each redundancy and collapse heralded in the news), and investment finance firms collapse, funds get frozen and banks turn harsh and stoney-faced, people’s confidence fractures. As each hammer blow strikes, they hold back more and more on purchases, businesses retrench or delay expansion and hunker down. Less shopping translates into less business, which affects retailers, manufacturers, importers, and the various elements up and down the economic food chain — including commercial landlords.

Those landlords who have left it until now to sell their retail unit/warehouse/workshop you-name-it are, given the circumstances, probably willing to sell at a bit of discount. (In most cases, it’s a good bet that the desperate are driving the market.) OK, that’s a bit tough for them. But if things are spiraling down, and the bank is sending alarm signals and reaching for a fresh valuation to justify their loan ratios, well, you may be better to get out before it gets worse.

A friend of mine was in just that situation and sold his business and (until then) owner-occupied workshop for a price that gave him a haircut but not a bath. There’s a big difference between a motivated sale, a forced sale and a mortgagee sale, as Olly Newland has pointed out recently.

The collapse of 2nd tier finance, and the general reluctance of the banks and lenders to finance commercial property purchases has changed the game for budding commercial investors. In Commercial Real Estate Investor’s Guide we spend quite a bit of space talking about alternative sources of finance and the importance of your approach (and mindset) when pursuing it — and how the banks/lenders undergo a ‘personality change’ as the market slumps.

Let’s say you wanted to buy. You’re faced with a few challenges:
1) What value do you put on it? Vacant or tenanted, values are dropping — how far? Who knows? Assessing a commercial tenants’ financial strength has never been more important — and there are no guarantees (even if there are ‘guarantees’.)

2) Where do you get the money to buy it? Easier even a year ago, now many banks have entered their traditional period of fasting and abstinence. Lines of Credit are being cancelled, pre-approvals yanked. You may have assumed you’ve got so much ‘spare’ equity elsewhere that the banks would pave a path to your door — er, sorry, not anymore.

3) And so, we find ourselves looking to the vendor (keen to sell) for some assistance (i.e. to leave some money in, hopefully a lot). If you’re going to explore this, or you’re offered a vendor finance deal — especially a ‘lease-back’ — don’t be a bunny about it, get some advice on doing it properly. This is one area where the whole ‘kiwi ingenuity/DIY’ mindset can really see you come a cropper.
There are some useful tips in Commercial Real Estate Investor’s Guide which you could read, but also, for goodness sake talk to a properly-qualifed independent person who has done it before and knows the traps — but who isn’t going to try to slot you into a ‘bargain’ (i.e. a real estate agent in drag.) They’re around. And make sure you get any documentation drawn up or checked by someone experienced in property law. (Hint: see this book.)

The slowdown — are we at the bottom yet?
My view (and, please, I’m not holding myself out as an expert) is that this global economic slowdown is going to be of a longer rather than shorter duration. We’ll get through, as I’ve said before, but I think reports of a recovery are premature.

On one of the BBC’s Business Daily shows just this morning (18 June 09) I heard the man who’s headed furniture giant IKEA for ten years, Anders Dahlvig say it very well.

Asked how close he thought we might be to the beginning of the upturn, he said:

“I’m not that optimistic. I believe that when something as severe as this happens to us, I have a hard time believing it will only last for a year. If you look historically I would assume this is a three year cycle at least. So another two years at least of slow sales. When we hit the bottom is anyone’s guess. I don’t think it is now. I think it will last for a number of months we will see a sliding curve downwards.”

Earlier in the same interview, Anders Dahlvig also talked about the unsung ‘benefits’ of a slowdown … how it is an ‘opportunity’ for business in many ways:

“We see energy costs go down, oil prices are going down, you see raw material prices going down, we see lower purchase prices… less pressure on staff costs, we see lower interest rates. So there are a number of factors that are actually very advantageous to many companies right now.”

Listen to the full episode here on the BBC’s iPlayer (warning: somewhat flakey on a Mac) or download the podcast from the iTunes Store – Podcasts/BBC/BizDaily. If you get really stuck, drop me a line and I’ll point you to an archive of the mp3 file.

Finally, in the introduction to How to Survive and Prosper in a Falling Property Market I made a comment about our natural eagerness for a clear answer to the question ‘Where are we in the cycle?’ It bears repeating here:

The cycle is not completely predictable – nor is it signposted
There’s another old stockmarket saying, ‘No-one rings a bell at the top or bottom of the market’.
Hearing about the property cycle, its repetitive pattern, the drivers and indicators that routinely sweep through the market and economy, and its overall rhythm, less-experienced investors can imagine that the cycle operates like a set of traffic lights – perfectly synchronised, orderly and with clear indications for all sides to see. Actually, this is not the case. It’s the very lack of precise predictability and clarity that causes many of the casualties (and opportunities).
The phases of the property cycle are not signposted like rural towns. You won’t see a banner that states ‘Welcome to the slump’ or ‘You are now entering a commercial rent downturn’ or ‘Farewell from stagnant house price growth. Invest safely. Come back soon.’ If only it were that simple. In fact the market is beset with false starts and lulls, in the same way a faulty automatic gearbox sometimes ‘hunts’ for the right gear to engage when the car is driven uphill. As you’ll see later in this book, inexperience, bad advice, and fear (fear of missing out and, later, fear of loss) can lead people to make unfavourable buying, selling and investing decisions. Some investors can sound like impatient children (‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’).
Things are always so much clearer in hindsight. Take some advice from Olly Newland who advocates patience: “Real estate is all about timing. Write it on your forehead and never forget it.”

Shameless plug: Get your copy of this book here (or download a free chapter).