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What Fire Sale?

While the nation’s credit markets and economy might appear to be in a freefall, sellers of office properties continue to toe the line on pricing, stubbornly refusing to give up record-high valuations gained over the past three years.

But the question begs, “How long before the pressure builds and sellers slash prices?” asks Robert White, president of New York-based research firm Real Capital Analytics.

According to the firm’s newly released numbers, February office sales amounted to a measly $2.5 billion, which is a 45% decline from January, a 95% drop from a year earlier and the lowest monthly volume total in five years. While early 2007 sales figures are skewed a bit thanks to the huge privatization of Equity Office Properties Trust, the early-2008 metrics point to continued buyer skittishness.

During the first two months of the year, office sales totaled $6.8 billion versus some $20 billion in properties brought to market. The slow volume speaks to the widening bid/ask spread between buyers and sellers, with new listings outpacing closings by 4-to-1 in February and 3-to-1 in January. And tellingly, the deals getting done are considered more “core” or stabilized assets rather than value-added properties.

“There is a big difference between wanting to sell and needing to sell a property,” says White. “In the current market, sellers aren’t yet pressured into accepting too much of a discount in price which is a primary reason why volume has sunk to such low levels.”

Even for those deals getting done, financing sources have all but dried up. White cites only insurance companies and foreign investors as active participants in the office markets. He also points to several U.S. markets with the highest inventories, including Sacramento, South Florida, Southern California, Northern New Jersey, Houston, Dallas and Manhattan.

Private equity funds, the most aggressive buyers of office buildings in 2007, may come under the most pressure to sell this year, given their penchant for short-term holding periods. Institutional investors generally have a longer time horizons and will likely ride out the present storm.

White cites two “safe haven” property sectors for investors — medical office and single-tenant properties.

Some $5 billion in medical office sales were recorded in the past 12 months, pushing the sector’s share of the overall office market over 6% for the first time since 2004. Single-tenant office sales are also on the rise, returning to levels not seen since 2004. “The bond-like nature of single-tenant office has made this niche attractive as it is less exposed to downside risks in the economy,” says White.

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