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.

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.

4 Essential Office Leasing Tips for Non-Profits

Non-profit organizations are typically more cost-sensitive than for-profit companies and usually have unique funding schedules and decision making processes that must be recognized and accommodated for.  Maximizing value and crafting flexible terms during an office relocation or lease renewal should be paramount to your real estate goals.

1. Hire a real estate advisor. Adding a seasoned real estate professional to your team is going to prove invaluable, as they help navigate your organization through the tricky waters of the commercial real estate leasing industry. They’ll also help to level the playing field when negotiating with landlords and their brokers, and they’ll do all the heavy lifting so you can spend your time focusing on your core business and furthering your organization’s mission.

Since leasing commissions are paid by the landlord, and NOT the tenant, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t access your right to professional representation. Remember, “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Give preference to a broker who has board experience with non-profits, as they’ll understand important nuances and be able to structure the best deal for you. Also, don’t be shy – ask your broker to make a donation out of their real estate commission to your organization after the transaction is complete.

2. Don’t spend too much on rent. Foundations and donors carefully scrutinize your organization’s budget, and want to see that the majority of their money is being spent on the mission and not just your operational costs. After employee payroll, the office lease is typically the next biggest expense on your income statement. Therefore, slimming down your office rent is going to make your organization look more attractive to money sources while freeing up much appreciated liquidity.

Attracting and retaining top talent is important, so try and find the nicest space at the best cost and make sure you’re being mindful of how efficient the building you’re moving into is. A good rule of thumb is to identify properties where other non-profits have made their home, and then ask a few current tenants if they’re happy with their experience at that property.  Being around other non-profit organizations is also conducive to collaboration and strategic partnerships.

3. Align the lease with funding your schedules.  It is crucial that you make an assessment of your organization’s key funding dates and schedules, and then share that information with your broker so that they may structure an office lease that is not only congruent, but complimentary to your timing.

For example, if your largest grant is renewed every two years, then you want to ensure that there are strategies in place to respond to the unfortunate scenario of the potential discontinuation of that grant. The current stage of the real estate cycle, your leverage as a tenant, and the willingness of the landlord to work with you will all play key factors in what strategies are employed.

Should office rental rates be trending downwards, then an easy solution would be to simply make your lease coterminous with your funding schedules and include tenant friendly renewal terms. However, if rents are rising you’ll want to lock in a low rate and sign the longest lease your strategic plan will allow for, and then build in early termination clauses.  Another solution could be to negotiate terms that will give you the flexibility to be relocated within the ownership’s portfolio without penalty, should you need to downsize substantially.

4. Get free furniture.  One of the most unnecessary expenses upon moving is the cost of relocating existing or purchasing new office furniture.  If you’re relocating your office, give preference to “Plug & Play” subleases where the subtenant is allowed to acquire or simply use the existing furniture for no additional cost throughout the duration of the sublease.

If you have to leave furniture behind, consider donating it to another fellow non-profit, as the cost of disassembling, moving, and reassembling office furniture can sometimes cost almost as much as simply buying new office furniture anyways. If your new location does not have furniture, consider looking for used furniture. Not only will harmful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) already be “off-gassed” which will help improve the indoor air quality of your new office, but many companies give away unwanted furniture to non-profits so as to benefit from the tax deduction.