The Evolution of the “Comp”

Remember the “telephone game” when you were a kid?

You’d whisper, “I had ham and eggs for breakfast this morning,” to the person to the right and by the time it made its way around the circle the last person would say, “Santa has ham for legs and just installed new flooring.”

telephone

Well the same thing happens when real estate comps are traded.

In commercial real estate brokerage the lease comparable or “comp” is a summary snapshot of a transaction that includes all the relevant deal points such as the rental rate, square footage, length of term and concessions. Simply put, it is one of the most accurate real-time indicators of what tenants are willing to pay to lease space in a market at a specific point in time.

Comps are traded predominantly amongst brokers, landlords, lenders and appraisers, however there is no central repository for this information.  Each party or their respective company or firm maintains their own proprietary database where this comparable information is kept; and this comes with its own challenges.

With such a fragmented method of assembling, compiling and maintaining this data it’s impossible to warrant its accuracy.  For example, I’ve received comps for the same transaction but from different brokerages, and they have all had conflicting information – inconsistencies in the lease expiration date, tenant improvement package, rental schedule,etc.

Also, there are severe limitations to only being able to search your own firm’s database.  What if the data you need existed somewhere out there but your firm didn’t have it?  Well then you’d just have to hunt around until you found it, which can be very time consuming.

CompStak is a new, crowd-sourced model that allows CRE professionals to contribute lease comps and then earn points for what they’ve submitted.  They can then trade the points that they’ve earned for details on other comps that are more relevant and important to them.

This is huge for a few reasons.  First, having a centralized database that everyone contributes to encourages data integrity and market transparency.  Simply put, verified, accurate data benefits everyone involved.  Second, being able to magnify the scope of a search by accessing a much larger, more robust database makes me a better-informed broker and ultimately, allows me to provide better service to my clients.

CompStak is currently available in San Francisco and Manhattan, with plans to eventually go national.  Personally, the service has already proven its worth in at least two recent transactions and I look forward to their continued success.

Hopefully now when I  say, “three months free with $25 per square foot in TI’s,” it doesn’t get translated into, “tree trunks free with $25 in bacon flavored toothpaste”.

Related news: Commercial Real Estate Tech Company CompStak Makes Bay Area Inroads

What I Learned While at 42Floors

Yesterday, I wrapped up a one-month consulting position with San Francisco-based 42Floors.com. As a tenant rep advisor that’s passionate about commercial real estate and technology, I jumped at the opportunity to join the team and get a feel for what it’s like to work within a fast paced startup in the midst of SoMa’s exciting technology boom.

The 42Floors Crew
The 42Floors Crew

In a nutshell, 42Floors is a free search engine for office listings in San Francisco and  New York, wrapped up in a gorgeous user interface.  The model itself isn’t exactly groundbreaking, except for the fact that their current focus is not on monetization, but on creating the absolute best user experience possible.

Here’s how it works.  The user searches active office space listings and when they find something they like, they submit their contact information and the handoff is made to the listing broker, who then follows up with them to schedule a tour of the space.  Nothing revolutionary there.  Where 42Floors really sets itself apart, however, is with their Concierge; a human being that uses a telephone to actually call you.  How many companies actually do that anymore, and for free?  Their only task is to make sure you’re happy, answer questions about the market and commercial real estate, and ultimately, that you’re successful in finding your new office space online through their website.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other great features that elevate the user experience, like robust filtering options, photo-intensive listings and rental estimates for properties that don’t publish their asking rents, but the Concierge addresses a gaping hole in the online listing arena: tenants not only need but deserve the advice of an expert that’s looking out for their interests.  This is something that gets lost when a tenant uses the internet to find an office space online and then cuts a direct deal with the landlord without being represented by an advisor.  With 42Floors Concierge, the tenant can receive guidance and assistance from a professional they can trust.

My big takeaway from my experience with helping 42Floors develop their concierge program, is that tenants will always need a human advocate, and 42Floors understands that.

Just like WebMD.com will never replace the role of the doctor, 42Floors.com will never replace the role of the tenant advisor – they exist to enhance and compliment the process, be it a trip to the hospital or signing a new office lease.

5 Things Every Office Tenant Should Consider in the New Year

©2012 Darvin Atkeson / LiquidMoon.com
©2012 Darvin Atkeson / LiquidMoon.com

Over the years I’ve observed that for many tenants, once the lease has been executed it’s filed away and forgotten until it’s time to renew or relocate.  This is partially because they’re focused on their core business but also because they assume that once the lease is signed, the terms cannot be modified again until after the expiration date; this is simply not true.  Depending on factors such as a change in the building’s occupancy level, the general overall health of the local market, and even a change in the building’s ownership, improving the terms and rental rate could be achievable by the tenant as leverage may have shifted.  At the very least, a quick refresher will remind a tenant of key dates, their rights and options, or even a potential liability they’re currently exposed to.

As we head into the New Year it’s a good time to dust off your lease and ask your commercial real estate advisor to conduct a review and provide you with an updated lease abstract. Here are five things they should consider:

1.  Could your rental rate be immediately lowered?
If the rental rate you’re currently paying is substantially higher than where current market rates are, then a “Blend and Extend” strategy may be possible.  Simply put, you amend your lease to extend the length of your term, and blend the new lower rate into the present high rate, thereby immediately lowering your rent.  If your lease expiration date is too far in the future or you do not wish to extend the lease beyond that date, there could be other options as well.  Perhaps the landlord has a large security deposit on file, and you’ve made timely rental payments whose sum now eclipses the cost of the landlord’s up front occupancy costs (tenant improvements, broker commissions, etc.).  Albeit risk-adverse, savvy landlords understand that their tenants’ success is tied to their own.  Therefore, they may allow you to apply a portion of your existing security deposit towards rent, and in some cases just simply give some back.

2.  Are you aware of important notification and lease dates?
If you have the right to extend your term, the landlord typically will build notification dates into the lease.  For example, you may need to notify the landlord of your intent to renew no sooner than nine but no later than six months prior to your lease expiration.  This also goes for Early Termination, should you have that right.  Make sure to be well aware of when your lease expires, as well.  It can sneak up on you and if you don’t plan and time your renewal or relocation wisely, your leverage could potentially be substantially reduced.  Mark your calendar and stay ahead of these dates.

3.  Have you received and reviewed your Operating Expense Rent Statement?
If the landlord is passing through operating expense increases to you as additional rent, they should be providing you with an annual expense statement.  Don’t hesitate to ask your real estate advisor to review your statement for you.  If something is irregular they’ll catch it and perhaps recommend you exercise your right to audit, which tenants are usually allowed to do no more than once a year.  It’s also worth the effort to make sure expenses are not being passed through to you that were not agreed to in the lease.

4.  Does the size of your office still accommodate your needs?
Do not think that you have to “ride out your lease” if you’ve outgrown your space or perhaps have had to reduce the size of your staff.  Your real estate advisor can help you work with the landlord to relocate within the building into a more appropriately sized suite, and if one is not available, then subleasing may be an appropriate solution.

5.  What sublease rights do you have?
For many reasons, tenants often need to get out of their space in advance of their lease expiration date, and subleasing can be a wise exit strategy.  However, not all sublease clauses are created equal.  First, do you even have the right to sublease, and if so, what restrictions will be placed on you?  Are you allowed to sublease to existing tenants in the building, or tenants who have recently toured the building on a direct basis?  Can you market the space at any rate you set, or does it have to be equal to or higher than direct space in the building?  How are sublease profits shared and how much time does the landlord have to respond to a consent request?  Know your rights, and how the subleasing terms will likely affect the ability to achieve your desired results.

When several years have passed since you’ve signed your lease, it’s easy to forget what you signed up for in the first place.  Your real estate advisor can effectively and efficiently digest your lease, extrapolate key points, and then present them to you in a lease abstract within the context of today’s current market conditions.  This quick refresher is time well spent, and having a better handle on your lease’s key points and terms could prove invaluable for whatever may come your way in the New Year.

Is “Free Rent” Really Free?

Depending on what stage of the “cycle” the real estate market is currently in, landlords will sometimes offer tenants “Free Rent”; but what exactly is it and why do landlords use it?

Free Rent is a number of months that a tenant is allowed to occupy their space without having to make rental payments and is typically applied to the beginning of the lease term.

However, to really understand the concept of “Free Rent”, it’s important to look at it from the landlord’s perspective.  Offering a tenant free rent creates perceived value and is a compelling incentive when signing a new lease or renewal, therefore it serves as an effective strategy for luring tenants.  But it the tenant truly getting “free rent”?  Not exactly.

A landlord is focused on the “Net Present Value” of the lease when evaluating a transaction, or rather, the total dollar amount a tenant will pay in rent over time, after taking into consideration the time value of money and applying a “discount rate”.

What we’re really evaluating here is the “effective” or, average rent – which in both of the following cases is $24.00 per square foot, annually.  If a landlord offers a tenant 2 out of 12 months free with a $2.40 start rate, it’s essentially the same as offering another tenant 0 out of 12 months free with a $2.00 start rate.

This can be extremely beneficial to a tenant, since foregoing rental payments for a few months can help offset their relocation costs, or any of their own money they may have used to build out the premises.  Free rent at a new location can also help a tenant relocate from their current location in advance of their lease expiration date.

But for a landlord, it helps maintain a higher contract rent, which over time results in a more profitable building.  Take the previous two lease offers, for example.  The landlord would much prefer brokers trade a recent lease comparable with the higher $2.40 start rate, because they want rental expectations to be set as high as possible for their property.  And from the perspective of the lender or investor, this keeps them happy and in some cases there might even be a price per square foot threshold lease rates need to stay above in order to get their approval.  Factoring “free rent” into the overall economics of the transaction helps achieve this.

There are a few pitfalls a tenant needs to watch out for, however.  Before signing your new lease agreement or lease renewal, look out for a clause called “Inducement Recapture” and make sure your broker redlines it.  If you don’t and find yourself in default, you could be held liable to repay in arrears for any free rent you received at the beginning of your term – this could get expensive.

Also, make sure you’re not leaving any money on the table that could be applied to your transaction as free rent.  For example, if the landlord is offering a $10 per square foot tenant improvement allowance and you’re fine with taking occupancy “as is”, don’t just spend the money just to spend it, or walk away from it altogether.  Rather, negotiate to have that allowance converted into free rent.

The number of months in free rent a tenant receives depends on many factors such as a tenant’s current leverage in the market, the financial health of the landlord and the building’s vacancy rate.  Hiring an active tenant broker to represent you in your lease transaction will ensure that you receive the maximum benefit of incentives the market currently has to offer.

How much office space should I REALLY lease?

Leasing too much (or too little) office space can be a costly mistake, however determining exactly how much space you require is one component of the leasing process that is often rushed or inaccurate.

Unfortunately, our industry is partially to blame for this.  Tenants often think they need more space than they actually do, and since a broker earns more when you lease more, they may be the last person to tell you that you could scale back.

Taking the time to identify the size, configuration and quantity of each element of your new office will not only save you time and money down the road, but chances are you’ll find that you require less space than you originally thought you did.

Old rules of thumb such as, “tech tenants require 150 square feet per employee, and law firms require 350” is an unreliable measure and nothing more than an insightful metric for spotting a gross irregularity; there are far too many variables involved in determining your space requirement to simplify it in this way.

A better and more accurate solution is to take an analytical approach by using a tried and true Excel spreadsheet.

First, calculate the quantity and size of all your desired offices, cubes, conference rooms and supporting spaces such as kitchens, server rooms, storage closets, reception area so as to arrive at your Net Square Footage.

Then factor the following into your spreadsheet as they’ll substantially affect your true space requirement.

  • Circulation Factor – this is simply “the space between” and takes into account all the interior space that hasn’t yet been accounted for such as hallways and walkways between cubes.
  • Load Factor – Buildings add a percentage on top of the actual square footage of your office to account for common areas such as lobbies, restrooms and hallways.  This is the difference between the Useable Square Footage (USF) and Rentable Square Footage (RSF). Properties can vary greatly in how efficient they are, and a good broker will not overlook this important factor.

Finally, this exercise will yield an accurate square footage of what you require today, but what about in the future?  Take time to consider factors that will affect your space requirement throughout the term of your lease such as hiring or consolidation, planned mergers and acquisitions and changing in funding schedules.