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Category: Industrial Tags: The Matthews Publication

A Case for Vacant Space: Why Industrial Buyers Want Small, Unleased Buildings

Fueled by growth motives, owner-users in select markets opt for vacant industrial space rather than fully-leased, stabilized properties.


The industrial sector is rife with “dry powder”—unspent cash reserves waiting to be invested. Investors, who mostly have sat on the sidelines for the past two years, made 13% fewer transactions year-over-year at the start of 2024. Private buyers were the largest source of commercial real estate capital last year, making up 62% of the U.S. buyer composition with $230 billion in total acquisitions. With growing optimism and mild hope for interest rate cuts later this year, many investors have started to deploy capital again.


Not only are buyers back, but they have returned in an unlikely way. Remarkably, the demand for vacant industrial buildings has surpassed that of fully leased, investment-grade buildings. The pattern is a notable outlier compared to historical supply and demand and suggests a departure from 2022 and 2023 trends. 


The demand for vacant industrial buildings has surpassed that of fully leased, investment-grade buildings in select markets.


While construction costs remain high and net absorption has slowed for larger, big-box industrial facilities, investors can expect to face premiums for vacant buildings under 50,000 square feet. Smaller U.S. industrial property is in such high demand, with comparatively low vacancy rates and strong rent growth, that developers and brokers often advise waiting to sign a lease and leaving a building vacant.


Making Sense of the Market

Since the start of 2023, newly built distribution centers and vacant industrial properties over 500,000 square feet have faced several challenges. Tenant demand for big-box industrial properties slowed substantially as the year progressed. As supply outpaced demand, the U.S. industrial property vacancy rate rose from a record low of 3.9% in 2022 to 6.2% in Q2 2024.


However, this trend disproportionately reflects the market. While a slowed net absorption is prevalent among spaces larger than 500,000 square feet, demand remains generally healthy for properties below 50,000 square feet. Construction has also exacerbated vacancy numbers. As the result of widespread groundbreakings for new distribution centers during the pandemic, the stock of U.S. industrial properties is growing at its fastest in more than three decades.


The total stock of U.S. industrial space has grown by 2.8% over the last 12 months, almost triple the pre-pandemic 20-year average for annual supply growth. New deliveries will likely remain elevated for the next six to nine months, driving the U.S. vacancy rate higher, but fewer development completions for properties under 50,000 square feet will curb national average vacancies later this year.


What’s happening is a fundamental shift in how empty buildings are perceived. In other words, vacancy in the industrial sector isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For speculative properties—ones built without a pre-leased tenant—it makes more sense for landlords who want the highest market rent or price to wait before leasing or selling and have the building remain unencumbered by an agreement. For example, investors are advised to wait until a property is completed instead of pre-leasing it a year in advance. Otherwise, they may experience substantial “loss to lease” since the property was leased before market rents increased. In some industrial markets, especially those where strong demand exceeds supply, landlords can wait to close a deal without facing too much risk.


While industrial rents rise and vacancies remain low in select markets, it’s better not to lock down a tenant too early.


While cap rates have compressed nationwide, industrial property owners have felt the effects most intensely. In Q1 2024, industrial cap rates increased to 6%, though well below the 7.1% average fixed 10-year mortgage rates. With the burden of rate hikes unlikely to ease until late 2024 or early 2025, industrial property prices remain dislocated. Sellers remember the prices they saw in 2021 and 2022 all too well, and buyers won’t buy at the same peak pricing. Because of this, industrial property owners are advised to sell vacant or lease to a short-term tenant rather than hunt for a new, long-term tenant.


Investors are forgoing long-term leases to avoid “loss to lease” or the opportunity cost of leasing before substantial market rent increases.


Benefits of Vacant Space for Owner-Users

Investors and owner-users have different motives. The former, mainly institutions or REITs, aren’t involved in the tenant’s business and tend to be more change-averse. They make rental income from the property, typically a warehouse, distribution center, or manufacturing space pre-leased by a creditworthy tenant. The latter, building owners and operators, are motivated by growth. They have skin in the game and want a property they can grow with. For instance, a manufacturing company might buy an industrial building for production purposes. Owner-users are uniquely motivated to move into an unleased property if it helps their business. To them, a vacant property is invaluable. Owner-users reap several benefits from owning the property they use:


  • Growth Benefits: Vacant properties appeal to owner-users looking to scale operations and benefit a bottom line.
  • Long-Term Stability: By owning a property outright, owner-users can avoid uncertainties associated with lease renewals. This stability can help businesses establish a more permanent presence in a specific location.
  • Ownership: Though more financially straining upfront, purchasing a vacant property allows owner-users to appreciate their property values over time.
  • Flexibility and Control: A vacant building is a blank slate, which gives owner-users the utmost control over customizations and modifications to the space.


Key Price Shift Factors For Investors

Property Size

The demand for vacant industrial buildings is strongest among buildings 50,000 square feet or smaller. This has created a disproportionate share of new, large warehouses compared to small-bay and flex industrial properties. Specifically, several new developments in Denver larger than 100,000 square feet remain vacant while owners look to secure tenants. As a result, vacancy rates in Denver and other markets have been reportedly high, according to major news outlets. However, this is only half of the picture. Since developers focus on large industrial buildings, the demand for vacant flex and small-bay industrial properties is actually stronger, while vacancies are lower.


Cost of Construction

Property size directly affects the cost of construction. As costs remain high, it doesn’t make sense for developers to build projects smaller than 50,000 square feet. Most builders consider building large warehouses—and securing long-term leases from established businesses—a better use of investors’ dollars. But realistically, small-bay and flex buildings suit most industrial businesses with shorter lease expectations. As a result, small vacant industrial buildings have seen strong pricing and rent appreciation.


Diversification Within Property Type

As more businesses expand and adopt omnichannel strategies, the industrial sector’s tenant mix continues to diversify beyond giants like Amazon. Tenants are expanding their logistics infrastructure and omnichannel operations to meet consumer demand better. Industrial’s tenant diversification bodes well for the property type, especially as economic conditions look to rebound from high interest rates and inflation, which ate into consumer wages and savings.


Supply Chain Bottlenecks

Disrupted supply chains have made new, up-to-date facilities more attractive to logistics tenants seeking more efficiency. Plus, consumer preferences for shorter delivery times and increased favorability of just-in-time manufacturing have increased demand for modern facilities. Boosted by tailwinds from major tenants, logistics buildings completed in 2020 and 2021 have seen accelerated lease-ups compared to new buildings built before the pandemic.


Looking Ahead

Despite an economic slowdown over the last year, select markets will continue to experience strong demand for vacant industrial space. Alongside record levels of supply and quieter leasing activity from major market players, upcoming industrial deliveries are expected to see strong lease-ups due to a diverse tenant mix and the appeal of new properties to owner-user tenants. While supply risk varies across markets, the volume of new supply delivered could outpace demand, especially for properties over 50,000 square feet, larger than what most investors and owner-users are looking for.

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