The commercial real estate market has been hard hit the last several years. While the residential market has suffered equally, commercial real estate typically falls the hardest and climbs the fastest. It has seen higher highs and lower lows than many other components of the market, but lenders are beginning to loosen their belts as things begin to slowly improve, says Andrea Bucey-Tikkanen, vice president of commercial real estate lending for Lorain National Bank.

“That many commercial lenders feel cautiously encouraged could be an indicator of improvements to the economy as a whole,” says Bucey.

Smart Business spoke with Bucey about the commercial real estate market and how banks’ lending practices have begun to thaw.

How has the overall commercial real estate industry been performing?

This year has brought the beginning of a recovery within the commercial real estate industry. There is more activity than there has been in some time, and more banks, insurance companies and other financing conduits are back at the table and proactively looking to lend. Since mid-2008, the industry has been fraught with frightened lenders and floundering borrowers. This year, there is more confidence and optimism on both sides of the table.

What has been the effect on commercial real estate developers?

Commercial real estate developers are a strong and resilient breed. The recession caused many within the industry to fail —some previously solid, good developers are out of business. However, the survivors are exceptionally creative and nimble and have less competition. That said, the role of government in the banking world is serving as a buffer; banks continue to be closely monitored, which prevents the pendulum from swinging too rapidly. The pace of recovery is measured and slow.

How have current market conditions impacted interest rates?

Many banks have been absent from the lending arena for a protracted period of time, either because they chose to sit on the sidelines or because their own poor performance forced them to do so. Banks with money to lend have had less competition and a borrowing base that needed capital. Simple supply and demand drove cost, and while the overall interest rate indexes have been exceptionally low for years, banks could — and did — pay little heed to the indexes themselves. Base rates may have been low, but spreads were thick. In recent months, that has changed dramatically. Spreads are greatly reduced from where they were as recently as late 2011.

Banks lending on commercial real estate consistently during the recession were doing so in a challenging and cautious market. The spreads applied during the worst of times reflected the level of risk inherent in the transaction. Interest rates are the way in which a bank is compensated for the risks it is taking. A riskier, more challenging market equals a higher price for the end user which, in this case, is the commercial real estate developer.

Has lenders’ behavior helped or hindered the market?

There have been bad cops and good cops in the lending arena. A number of lenders were so panicked by the economic downturn that they looked for ways to decrease any and all real estate assets within their portfolios, whether they were performing or not. To encourage their borrowers to refinance elsewhere, bad cops used any and all efforts, including applying punitive interest rates and failing to extend maturity dates on otherwise performing loans. The good cops were the lenders that provided capital consistently, in many cases helping to resurrect a challenged asset by providing the dollars needed to refinance. A good cop in this recent environment had numerous lending opportunities on good assets that were simply the victim of circumstance.

Have economic times influenced the types of real estate deals being done?

Absolutely. There are developers that have not only succeeded in recent years but thrived.  They responded to challenges by adapting and using the market to their advantage. This can be seen in the number of ‘value add’ projects being financed, which is the purchase — oftentimes for a markedly reduced price — of a floundering project, be it with high vacancy, a failed owner, or a lender desperate to dump an asset. These low prices have provided the developer that has had capital with a unique opportunity to cheaply buy an asset, provide it with a heightened level of attention, affect its turnaround and vastly increase its end value. These types of projects continue to be popular.

Is the recovery sustainable?

There is a ripple effect brought about by the ‘value add’ concept. A landlord who has paid less for his or her asset can charge his or her tenants less rent, which forces neighboring properties to adjust their rental rates downward to maintain tenancy, regardless of the price they paid and the level of debt upon their particular asset. This downward pressure on rents will serve as an ongoing challenge — some would call it a correction — for the foreseeable future.

What actions can a developer take to help improve their odds of success?

There is nothing a banker likes better than an honest borrower. Surviving these past few years has taken talent, perseverance and luck, but it has also forced a level of brutal disclosure. Successful developers have proactively worked with their lenders, disclosing early and regularly fears they have or problems they’re facing. A good lender will listen and help work creatively toward a solution. The end result is mutual success and a healthier market.

Andrea Bucey-Tikkanen is vice president of commercial real estate lending for Lorain National Bank. Reach her at (216) 520-7310 or abucey@4LNB.com.

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Published in Akron/Canton