Last May, Wachovia quietly struck a $546 million deal that received little mention in the financial press. It wasn’t one of the acquisitions that the country’s fifth-largest bank has become known for. Instead, it was a giant sale-leaseback: 8.2 million square feet of real estate, in 150 facilities concentrated in the eastern United States.
Other than its sheer size, what is noteworthy about this deal is its lenient terms. Instead of leasing back all of the space from the buyer, as was once usual, Wachovia will lease only 6 million square feet. The buyer, American Financial Realty Trust, will attempt to sell the rest, much of which is hard-to-sell space in partly vacant facilities. In addition, the bank has secured the right to give back certain properties to the landlord early if it chooses.
“This leaseback will save us approximately $22 million a year,” says Ginny Schlosser, CFO for Wachovia’s corporate real estate function. The savings result primarily from freeing up excess space and taking that asset off its balance sheet, as well as reduced costs associated with ongoing property maintenance.
Market conditions have made investors surprisingly willing to cut such deals, and a growing number of companies are seizing the chance to pull capital out of their real estate assets. Examples abound. Earlier this year, Bank of America did a $546 million leaseback of bank branches in a transaction similar to Wachovia’s. And in May, Amerco concluded a $312 million leaseback of its U-Haul self-storage and truck-rental facilities. The trend is even extending to European companies, which have traditionally been more reluctant than their American peers to enter into sale-leasebacks. In 2003, for example, the British Broadcasting Corp. completed a mammoth $1 billion leaseback for one of its facilities in London.
“Leasebacks are definitely on the rise — we’ve seen a huge pickup in business,” says Steve Van Amburgh, CEO of Koll Development Co. (KDC), a Dallas-based commercial developer.
Two changes in the market have made leasebacks more attractive: lower rents and higher property values. According to Reis Inc.’s Andrew Wright, a senior consultant based in New York, the corporate leasing market is still suffering the aftereffects of overbuilding in the late 1990s and 2000, and demand for leases has yet to catch up with supply. Figures from Reis show that average rental prices in the United States have slid from their peak of $29 per square foot in 2000 to just $24 today.
At the same time, low interest rates and uneven returns in the stock market have driven investors — many of them new to the real estate market — to buy properties. “There is a lot of capital looking for real estate, but there isn’t enough property to go around,” says Steve Tinsley, senior vice president of corporate finance at Equis Corp., a corporate real estate services firm based in Chicago. “So we’re seeing some of the highest prices paid for real estate, but some of the lowest lease rates.” These investors are taking on more risk in pursuit of returns — they are willing to accept shorter leases than usual, take on partially vacant properties, and do business with non-investment-grade corporates. “They’ve loosened their investment parameters, and that’s an advantage for corporations,” says Tinsley.