JUNE 3, 2010
Looking for Lending
Business Owners Find Few Bank Loans for Low-Cost Property
By EMILY MALTBY, Wall Street Journal
Real-estate prices are enticingly low in many areas of the country, prompting business owners to pursue sweet deals on storefronts, manufacturing facilities and other commercial properties. But because banks remain wary of commercial real-estate loans, landing financing to make such a purchase can be time consuming and tedious.
Compared to peak prices in October 2007, commercial property values are down 42%, according to Moody's Investors Service Inc. Price index reports compiled by Moody's and Real Capital Analytics Inc. show that as of March 2010, the cost of industrial and office space fell 32% in the last two years. Retail space also plummeted 28%.
"There is excess space, which opens an opportunity for small firms," says Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist at National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington advocacy group. "You won't see prices like these for a long time."
Some owners are heeding the call. Randy Scheidt, who heads the legislative subcommittee of the National Association of Realtor's commercial division, says that he is noticing business owners "feeling more comfortable with the future" and weighing whether "such an acquisition would be fiscally prudent."
But the tight credit environment is making it difficult for entrepreneurs to secure those loans. "What is so different today versus 2006 is the underwriting scrutiny," says Mr. Scheidt. "It's not unusual for [the loan process] to take an additional 30 to 60 days."
Eliot Boyle, owner of U.S. Metals LLC in Denver, decided last year to move his sheet-metal roofing and siding business to a new facility. Lease rates in the area were steady, but commercial spaces for sale on the market were falling. "We thought this was a good time to take advantage of how well we were doing and how poorly the real-estate environment was doing," he says.
After preparing his business plan, he visited five banks and was turned down by four. The remaining lender, Bank of the West, which had previously worked with Mr. Boyle, issued him a Small Business Administration loan to buy a $680,000 building. The price for the space —a 50%-larger facility—had dropped 40%.
The process took longer than anticipated and closed one day before the scheduled move. The delays, says Mr. Boyle, stemmed from the bank's requirement of additional environmental reports and other due diligence.
"All those appraisals showed that…if the bank needs to move fast and has to liquidate the building quickly, it can do that," says Mr. Boyle.
"The approval timelines are really not that different than they were in the past," says Jim Cole, spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Bank of the West. "Appraisals take the same amount of time and, as always, environmental reports can take longer than expected."
Many banks taking extra precaution before issuing commercial mortgages are reeling from those kinds of losses and are wary of putting more of those loans on their books. According to a Real Capital Analytics' study of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and bank data, the default rate for commercial real-estate mortgages rose to 4.2%, amounting to $45.5 billion, for the first quarter of 2010. That's the highest default rate since 1992.
Commercial real estate loans have really hurt community and regional banks, which are key lenders to small businesses. They hold just more than half of bank-issued commercial mortgages and their portfolios are likely to hurt for some time. The default trend is expected to continue through 2011, when it may hit 5.4%, before abating, according to Real Capital Analytics.
Although the commercial real estate market has shown some tentative signs of life in the early months of 2010, there is little transparency about the value of many properties, says Sam Chandan, chief economist at Real Capital Analytics. Appraisals help determine price, he explains, but commercial property values are supported by other transactions in the area.
To overcome the credit challenge, experts say entrepreneurs can make themselves more attractive by submitting sound financial plans that back up their income projections and intent to repay the loan. Borrowers with solid credit histories and established bank relationships are more likely to get a loan.
Mr. Chandan says newer businesses can still land financing if they can bring equity to the table, especially if the borrower wants to purchase a vacant property that the bank is holding. But, he cautions, "lending standards have tightened considerably, so it will be challenging."