Office Market Shows Signs of Improvement
Houston’s overall vacancy rate remained relatively unchanged at 20.7% in Q4 2017, a decrease of 10 basis points quarter-over-quarter, compared to a 160-basis-point increase year-over-year. While net absorption for the quarter totaled a robust 750,016 sq. ft.—with direct space responsible for 260,977 sq. ft., and sublease space representing 480,475 sq. ft.—it wasn’t enough to push the year’s total into positive territory, as 2017 ended with 1.5 million sq. ft. of negative absorption being recorded. Overall occupancy in the Houston office market remains below 80%—the current rate of 79.3% is among the city’s lowest historical levels. Both the Houston metro’s overall rent and leasing activity are up from last quarter, and from a year ago. Everything considered, despite the uphill battle, the amount of sublease space as a percentage of the total amount of available space decreased to 15.4% at the end of December, compared to 16.0% at the end of November, while the total amount of available sublease space stands at 8.96 million sq. ft. Average asking rents grew by 0.9% year-over-year, while concessions such as free rent and tenant improvement allowances continued.
Outlook for Houston Remains Positive
The Houston economy continued to improve nearing the end of 2017. The business-cycle index is trending upwards and employment data exceeded pre-hurricane readings. Houston’s not seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.3% in November, up from 4.1% in October. The November increase was driven in part by an increase in the labor force likely related to Hurricane Harvey. Fuel prices in the region jumped relative to West Texas Intermediate in September but have varied as storm-related misrepresentations lessened. Retail gasoline prices dropped back to near pre-Harvey levels from the beginning of September to the end of October, and have been moderately flat since. Overall, while the outlook for the immediate future is circumspect, forecasts for the next few years remain optimistic.
Following another tepid year in the Houston office leasing market, the question that persists is whether we have finally reached the bottom. And, if we have, when will we see positive absorption of office space alongside a reduction in sublease space citywide?
There are early signs that the market may start trending in that direction, but it remains a steep hill to climb, with 8.9 million sq. ft. of sublease space in Greater Houston still available (compared to the historical trailing average of 4-5 million sq. ft.). However, even as 2017 closed out with 1.5 million sq. ft. of negative absorption, the end of the year still recorded some activity that portends a more positive forecast for Houston office leasing in 2018.
Despite the full-year negative absorption total, the fourth quarter posted positive absorption of 750,000 sq. ft., which was the market’s first quarter in the black since Q2 2016! Additionally, sublease inventory dipped below 9 million sq. ft. for the first time in two years.
Other encouraging signs include the fact that commodity oil pricing is up over $55/barrel of WTI (and today at $63/barrel as this is written). While Houston is much more diversified in various other industries than just energy, it remains a driving force locally. Additionally, we have a new federal tax code forthcoming that has provided for a significant drop in tax levels for business owners. These non-real estate events are positive factors that encourage companies to hire more, spend more, and often results in companies leasing more office space.
It’s a bit of a different story on the delivery side of things, as new construction for office buildings has virtually ceased citywide, except for the smaller square footage buildings (sub-100,000 sq. ft.) or the occasional preleased building. Construction is down from 12 months ago, and 2016 numbers were down from 2015 in construction square footages. This major construction slowdown during the past three years has put a cap on the square footage of office space inventory overall, for now. Interestingly, the reduction in new ground up office building construction has not put pressure on pushing construction pricing down for office interiors. In fact, these interior office space build-out costs on average continue to trend upward year over year. And user-owner office buildings (i.e., typically under 60,000 sq. ft.) continue to trade at higher and higher price-per-sq.-ft. levels over the past few years as well.
While 2017 ended with some positive indicators, we still have a significant glut of sublease space, mostly in the Downtown, Westchase and Energy Corridor submarkets. And with 20.8% vacancy across all buildings (and in some submarkets, like Energy Corridor, vacancies above 30%) we still anticipate 2018 to be a “tenant’s market,” where landlord concession packages will be significant and sublease deals will be done 30% to 50% below direct asking rent rates.
Second-Highest Quarter Ever of Sublease Leasing Activity
The overall availability rate, which measures the total amount of space being marketed for lease, sits at 25.2% as of fourth quarter 2017, down from 26.1% last quarter. Direct available space registered in at 50.1 million sq. ft., while sublease space is at 8.9 million sq. ft. Although the amount of sublease space has declined from its highest point of 12.0 million sq. ft. as of third quarter 2016, it still represents 3.9% of the market. More than 900,000 sq. ft. of sublease deals took place in Q4 2017—per our data, the second-highest quarterly tally ever recorded (following 937,000 sq. ft. in the first quarter of 2013).
First Quarter of Positive Net Absorption Since Q2 2016
Overall net absorption moved into positive territory for the first time since Q2 2016, following five consecutive quarters of registered negative demand. Direct space represented 260,977 sq. ft. of that total, and sublease space was responsible for 480,475 sq. ft. Accounting for some of the Class A sublease positive absorption activity, large blocks of space moved into the fourth quarter of 2017 included Aramco taking occupancy of 340,200 sq. ft. in Allen Center at 1200 Smith St.; multiple tenants occupying 113,741 sq. ft. in the American General Center at 2929 Allen Parkway; and Empyrean Benefit Solutions moving into 106,904 sq. ft. on floors 7 and 8 in Pinnacle Westchase at 3010 Briarpark Dr. Direct space contributing to positive absorption includes Targa Resources occupying 127,734 sq. ft. at 811 Louisiana St.; Lockton Houston moving into 116,250 sq. ft. in Lockton Place at 3657 Briarpark Dr.; and ANR Pipeline taking occupancy of 80,843 sq. ft. in Bank of America Center at 700 Louisiana St.
Construction Pipeline Down 86.6% Since Q4 2014
During the fourth quarter, 553,868 sq. ft. of new supply was delivered to the Houston market, bringing the total for 2017 to 2.7 million sq. ft. Of that sum, about 40% is available for lease. Landlords are in a position to offer potential tenants concessions such as free rent and cash for moving expenses or space customization. Of the 1.6 million sq. ft. under construction, the buildings with available space include Capitol Tower at 800 Capitol St., a 35-story, 778,000-sq.-ft. building, with anchor tenant Bank of America committed to 210,000 sq. ft., plus future availability of 526,865 sq. ft., with a delivery date in the second half of 2019. In addition, City Place 2, at 1701 City Plaza Dr. in the Woodlands, a 4-story, 326,800 sq. ft. office building, at 93.9% leased with a scheduled delivery date of October 2018; and The Post Oak at 1600 Post Oak Blvd., a 36-story, 104,579-sq. ft. building, at 70% leased nearing completion. The construction pipeline has dropped by 86.6% since hitting its peak of 12.2 million sq. ft. of office space that was underway at the end of the year 2014, when the oil downturn became apparent in the office market.
Confident Investment Sales and Leasing Activity
Real Capital Analytics data reports year-to-date office sales volume for 2017 in the Greater Houston area at $3,642.2 million, resulting in a year-over-year change of 256.8%. In addition, the number of properties sold increased by 49.4% and the average dollar amount per sq. ft. was up 52.9%. The buyer composition is made up of 42% cross-border, 22% private, 16% institutional, 12% user/other, and 9% public listed/REITs. Another positive sign for the Houston office market is the acquisition by Brookfield Asset Management of Houston Center, the largest commercial property in the Houston CBD. The 4.2 million-sq.-ft. office and retail complex was sold by J. P. Morgan Asset Management this December. The property encompasses a 9.2-acre, 6.5-block site and includes five properties along Fannin and McKinney streets and Lamar Ave., including three high-rise office towers and a 16-story office building over 196,000 square feet of retail space. The complex was 72% leased at the time of sale, and is home to notable tenants like Haynes and Boone, LyondellBasell Chemical, and North Rose Fulbright.
Leasing activity increased during the fourth quarter with a total of 3.57 million sq. ft. leased in the overall Houston market. Class A space fulfilled 2.21 million sq. ft., while Class B space realized 1.24 million sq. ft. These amounts are on par from 3.48 million sq. ft. at this time last year. On a percentage basis, direct space represented 78% of transactions, and sublease space was responsible for 22% of leasing activity during the fourth quarter. The largest transaction of the year was NRG Energy sealing a deal subleasing 431,037 sq. ft. from Shell Oil Co. at One Shell Plaza – 910 Louisiana in downtown Houston. NRG will occupy 18 floors within the 50-story, 1.1 million-sq.-ft. high-rise in the Houston CBD. This transaction marks the city’s largest sublease deal since the oil slump began three years ago, with a term through Dec. 31, 2025, when Shell Oil Co.’s lease expires.
Average Asking Rents Rise
The market saw overall full-service average rates increase $0.18 per sq. ft. quarter-over-quarter to close Q4 2017 at $28.10 per sq. ft. Sublease rates fell to $20.29 per sq. ft., down from Q3 2017’s $20.47. In addition, year-over-year asking rents grew by 0.9%—although concessions such as free rent and tenant improvement allowances make posted rents less meaningful as a market indicator. Brokers report net effective rents dropping significantly once negotiations begin.
Director of Research
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