October 10, 2023
Gelyn de Castro

From Sessions to Solutions: Key Takeaways from Western States CREF Conference 2023 

The commercial real estate (CRE) landscape is ever-evolving. For professionals in the field, especially Lenders and Asset Managers, keeping up with these changes is crucial. The Western States CREF Conference, held from September 6 to 8 at Aria Las Vegas, offers a direct line to the industry’s pulse, ensuring attendees stay abreast of the latest trends and insights. 

Every year, the CREF Conference gathers key players from the CRE finance sector. It’s a space for informed discussions and debates, shedding light on the future trajectory of commercial real estate finance. For Lenders and Asset Managers, it’s more than just an event; it’s a source of actionable insights that can guide strategic decisions and enhance portfolio performance. 

What makes the conference indispensable? Its ability to break down the complex dynamics of the market and provide a clear view of imminent challenges and opportunities. This year, with the unofficial tagline “Survive ‘til 2025,” the emphasis was on the importance of adaptability and forward-thinking resilience in this fast-changing industry. 

The standout message from this year’s conference was the industry’s need to adapt to the unprecedented challenges still ahead. 

As we navigate these turbulent waters, it’s imperative for industry players to remain proactive, innovative, and strategic in their approach. This article delves into the core discussions from the conference, shedding light on the current landscape of the CRE sector and offering actionable insights on how to not just weather the storm, but thrive in it and take advantage. 

If you’re an industry professional seeking guidance on navigating the challenges of the coming months, this is an essential read.  

Diving Deep into the State of the Lending Market 

Highlights from the Conference Panel 

During the conference, attendees were privy to a series of panels that delved deep into the pressing matters shaping the industry. Each panel, comprised of seasoned experts and industry leaders, dissected various facets of the commercial real estate sector. Their discussions not only highlighted the current challenges but also forecasted the potential opportunities and shifts on the horizon. These panels served as an invaluable source of insights, offering a comprehensive view of the evolving landscape of the industry. 

Lastly, a spotlight was cast on the potential implications of maturing construction loans and the ensuing challenges for borrowers. However, the silver lining was identified in the opportunities this scenario presents – a window to purchase office spaces at discounted rates, especially as tech companies begin to reconsider office spaces with reduced rents. 

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into each of these critical discussions, offering you a comprehensive understanding of the panel’s insights and the implications for the industry. 

“Survive ’til ’25”: Charting a Path Forward in Commercial Real Estate

Survive ’til ’25 emerged as a defining sentiment during the conference, capturing the collective outlook of the CRE community. This unofficial tagline epitomizes a resilient spirit and an acknowledgment of the sector’s imminent challenges. It emphasizes the need to weather the current storm with an eye on the promising horizon of 2025. 

As professionals navigated the conference’s diverse sessions, the phrase served as a reminder: while the industry undeniably grapples with daunting obstacles today, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, forecasted for 2025

Given the downturn in office space demand and the surge in vacancy rates, this perspective offers hope and clarity. 

As the commercial real estate market braces for 2024, these insights serve as guiding markers. While obstacles persist, strategic opportunities await those keen to adapt and innovate. 

Yet, the rallying cry isn’t just about survival. The industry’s leaders emphasized a complementary sentiment: “Thrive beyond ’25.” This mindset propels the community to see beyond the current downturn, harnessing it as a springboard for innovation, adaptation, and growth. In doing so, CRE players are reminded to transform challenges into opportunities. 

Major urban centers, like San Francisco, are experiencing notable shifts in the dynamics of office space. With prices dipping, a window of opportunity is opening, catching the attention of potential investors. 

During the discussion, the topic of where real estate deals are taking place was brought to the forefront. One participant highlighted a commonly held high-level view, suggesting that there might be a dissonance between the perceptions of top-level executives and the realities experienced by those on the ground. 

This contrast in observations underscores the complex and varied impact of recent events on different parts of the city, suggesting that while some areas might be struggling, others are witnessing a resurgence. 

Retail has shown significant resilience over the years. In fact, the strategic decision to limit the retail exposure in portfolios over the past 15 years has paid off, even under regulatory scrutiny. However, the current buzz centers around office spaces, especially in suburban areas and anchored strip retail spots. Cities like Portland are exemplifying this trend, with office spaces gradually moving away from urban cores. 

A panelist shared a personal experience, shedding light on this evolving scenario:, ” We’ve been tenants on the 25th floor of 595 Market Street for 15 years. Interestingly, for the past two to three years, we were the sole occupants of that floor. However, in the last six months, the rest of the floor has been leased to two new tech tenants. These companies, having never had an office space before, believed that consolidating their operations in one location would be beneficial for their business.” 

In light of these trends it was already presented by SmartCapital in our earlier blog post – “From Vacancies to Value: Incredible Investment Potential of Office Assets.” Months before the current developments began making headlines, we highlighted the immense potential of San Francisco’s market landscape. We’ve always believed in staying ahead of the curve and discerning the nuances of market dynamics. It’s precisely this foresight that led us to discern the golden opportunities awaiting investors in San Francisco’s property scene. 

Prime properties are now available at considerably reduced prices. Such dips in property values not only signal an immediate opportunity for acquisitions at discounted rates but also hint at substantial returns when the market eventually rebounds. As we had emphasized in our previous article, San Francisco’s evolving real estate market presents investors with an opportune moment. 

The overarching sentiment remains optimistic. While challenges persist, the current climate is ripe for investors with an acute sense of the market and an appetite for value. San Francisco’s downtown might be in a state of recalibration, but its peripheral regions, along with other urban centers, showcase a pulsating energy and revival. As these urban dynamics unfold, Smart Capital remains committed to generating real-time insights. 

Shifting our focus to the south, Los Angeles’s commercial real estate (CRE) market tells its own tale of prosperity. The sprawling metropolis, known for its diverse economy and vibrant culture, has long been a magnet for investors and businesses looking for opportunities in commercial properties. 

Los Angeles, with its vast metropolitan expanse, is a prime CRE hotspot. Comprising thousands of square miles that span across dozens of cities and multiple regions, the City of Angels offers a vast inventory for those keen on the commercial real estate sector. 

Whether you’re a principal investor or an expanding business, Los Angeles stands out as a premier destination for commercial property investments. And with best-in-class solutions provided by Smart Capital, potential investors and tenants are equipped with an AI-powered platform to pinpoint the perfect commercial real estate opportunities that cater to their specific needs in this dynamic city. 

This resounding optimism about LA’s CRE market reaffirms its position as a sought-after hub for commercial ventures, ensuring its relevance in discussions about real estate opportunities on the West Coast. 

Impending Defaults and the Optimistic Turn of 2024 

As the discussion progressed, one of the most thought-provoking panels pivoted its discussion towards market resilience and what the future might hold. The sentiment in the room was palpable, a mix of fear over looming challenges juxtaposed with a tangible sense of hope. 

Drawing from current trends and fresh data, the panelists painted a vivid picture of the immediate future. An undeniable cloud of uncertainty hangs over the industry as we edge closer to 2024. 

  • Rising Defaults: With property values declining and the cost of refinancing surging because of elevated interest rates, the industry is preparing for a potential rise in defaults. 
  • Overleveraged Owners: Owners with excessive leverage are more likely to stop investing in properties that offer diminishing returns, opting instead to cease payments. 

The panel also emphasized that understanding these dynamics is crucial for navigating the commercial real estate terrain in the coming years. 

Despite these concerns, the undercurrent of optimism remained unshaken. The panel collectively forecasted a surge in deal activity by the latter half of 2024. The catalyst for this resurgence? A combination of pent-up demand, favorable loan terms for qualified buyers, and the inherent cyclic nature of the real estate market. 

While challenges are undeniably present, the industry remains hopeful. As deal activities gain momentum, there’s anticipation that the commercial real estate sector will showcase its time-tested resilience once more. 

The current pulse of the commercial real estate (CRE) sector beats predominantly to the rhythm of forced deals. Amidst all the activity, a standout concern for many in the space is the looming expiration of their construction loans, emphasizing the critical nature of these short-term financial agreements. 

A significant facet of the commercial real estate sector is the role and impact of construction loans. Typically pegged with a 2-year term, these loans represent both a lifeline and a ticking clock for builders and property owners. 

As these loans approach their expiration, the urgency mounts for borrowers to secure new loans. This is where the challenge deepens. Given the current market dynamics and the aforementioned shifts in loan terms, not all borrowers will find it easy to get favorable conditions for their new loans. This might push several builders and property owners into a corner, potentially leading them to sell their properties. 

Despite achieving the rents and other aspects he desired for the property, the challenge arose when trying to replace the debt, given where the interest rates stand now. It was a struggle just to break even for him. Notably, he leveraged the property quite high; his bridge loan was at 8%, but with the added preferred equity, the bridge loan reached 11% and the preferred equity stood at 13%.” 

Some investors often encounter financing hurdles. A recent example highlights the need for refinancing, particularly when faced with unfavorable rate environments. Without timely refinancing, many players might find themselves on the verge of relinquishing control of their assets. 

Despite challenges like limited historical data and the need for underwriting, the industry remains resilient. Although aspirations might include significant cash-outs, success can also be measured by settling outstanding debts and transitioning into new financial phases for properties. This scenario underscores the importance of adaptability and strategic financial planning in the CRE space. 

While the volatile industry of construction lending is filled with pitfalls and uncertainties, its persistence and resilience amidst a wobbly market scenario showcase the multifaceted nature of the commercial real estate sector. Whether perceived or actual, the risks inherent to construction lending have shaped its trajectory, painting a complex picture of challenges and opportunities for developers and lenders alike 

Selling with Strategy: The 1031 Exchange Advantage 

As the tides of forced financing rise, investors in the CRE sector find themselves backed into a corner, selling assets under intense pressure. Yet, amidst this storm lies hope and strategy: the 1031 exchange. This provision offers those under the gun an opportunity not only to sell but to buy anew within 30 days — all without the burden of property tax. 

The 1031 exchange, often termed a “like-kind exchange”, serves as more than just a lifeline during dire financial circumstances. It stands as a testament to the industry’s resilience and adaptability in the face of ever-changing financial landscapes. 

By facilitating the reinvestment of proceeds from a recently sold property into a new one, this exchange empowers stakeholders to diversify portfolios, ride the wave of market trends, and reposition themselves based on burgeoning regional opportunities. 

Beyond its role as a tax deferment strategy, the 1031 exchange offers strategic relief for those grappling with the looming shadows of construction loan expirations. Instead of feeling trapped by unfavorable refinancing conditions, real estate players can use this mechanism to pivot towards new horizons without the fiscal strain of property tax. 

1031 exchange reminds us that even when facing challenges, there are always steps to be taken, paths to explore, and strategies to deploy. It’s not just about dodging pitfalls, but seizing the chances to evolve and flourish. 

Pretend and Extend Strategy: How Long Will This Continue? 

In the evolving financial landscape, the “Pretend and Extend” strategy adopted by lenders has become a point of contention. Essentially, this approach entails delaying the acknowledgment of troubled loans in hopes of a more favorable future environment where those loans might regain their footing. While this method offers immediate breathing room, the underlying question remains: How sustainable is it in the long run? 

Several data points shed light on this practice: 

  • Lending Constraints: Although there’s a high demand for commercial real estate debt, supply remains constrained, leading to steeper loan rates. Some loans might not be eligible for extension. 
  • Repayment Pressures: Approximately $1.3 trillion worth of commercial real estate loans will mature by 2025. If borrowers can’t refinance, it could trigger substantial losses for banks, echoing past banking crises. 
  • Banking Strain: Regional and community banks, holding about $2.3 trillion in commercial real estate debt, are particularly vulnerable. Rising rates and the need to offload loans at discounts might stress these institutions, potentially leading to insolvencies or mergers. 

Most financial analysts and industry experts express reservations about the indefinite use of the “Pretend and Extend” approach. They argue that while it might mitigate short-term financial strains, it risks amplifying underlying vulnerabilities. 

This could lead to larger, more systemic issues if widespread defaults occur simultaneously. 

The general consensus leans towards a forthcoming period of reckoning, wherein lenders will have to confront the actual health of their portfolios, making necessary adjustments and potentially absorbing losses. 

This is crucial for long-term stability and the overall health of the financial sector. 

The AI Platform for Commercial Mortgage Success 

In the intricate dance of commercial real estate, where every step counts, and timing is crucial, Smart Capital emerges as a game-changer, particularly for commercial mortgage lenders. 

Smart Capital is more than just a platform; it’s an Origination Portal specifically designed to address the challenges and opportunities of commercial mortgage lenders. 

Here’s how Smart Capital stands out: 

  • Efficiency and Cost-Cutting: One of the primary concerns for lenders is the costs associated with loan production and servicing. Smart Capital directly addresses this, cutting these expenses and allowing lenders to channel resources more effectively. 

How does it cut costs? 

Through the use of automation, it eliminates manual work from financial analysis, underwriting, debt management, and portfolio insight. 

  • Accelerated Loan Origination: Time is of the essence in the lending world. Smart Capital’s platform dramatically speeds up the loan origination process, allowing lenders to close deals faster and stay ahead of the competition. 
  • New High-Quality Leads: Smart Capital isn’t just about streamlining processes; it’s about growth. 

Investors use Smart Capital to understand markets, underwriting properties, and manage transactions. They also use the platform for financing and debt management. 

By bringing in high-quality leads from its user-investor base, it ensures that lenders have a steady stream of potential clients. This influx of leads isn’t just about quantity; it’s about the quality, ensuring that lenders are engaging with prospects that align with their offerings and standards. 

Moreover, with the platform’s ability to drive origination from both past and present borrowers, lenders have the unique advantage of tapping into a goldmine of opportunities, both from their existing network and fresh prospects. The promise of boosted productivity, up to an impressive 30x, is the icing on the cake. 

In the evolving realm of commercial real estate, where challenges are plenty but so are the opportunities, Smart Capital offers the advantages that can make the difference between mere survival and definitive success. 

From Market Shifts to Smart Solutions 

The Western States CREF Conference offered a panoramic view of the challenges and opportunities within the commercial real estate sector. The insights were profound and timely, highlighting the importance of adaptability, foresight, and innovation in a sector that’s seeing unprecedented shifts. 

In an industry that demands efficiency, precision, and scalability, Smart Capital is the solution for lenders who want to stay ahead of the curve and deliver exceptional service to their clients. This AI-powered platform is not just a tool but a powerful ally for commercial mortgage lenders. Whether it’s about optimizing costs, accelerating loan origination, or tapping into a reservoir of high-quality leads, Smart Capital proves to be a reliable partner, empowering lenders to navigate the evolving landscape of commercial real estate with confidence and success. 

As we reflect on the discussions and insights from the conference, one thing becomes clear: The future of commercial real estate may be replete with challenges, but with AI-powered platforms like Smart Capital, the opportunities are limitless. Embracing these innovative solutions will not just be a strategy but a necessity for those aspiring to lead in the years to come. 

Don’t just survive; thrive by 2025. 

Discover how Smart Capital can bring speed, enhance insight, and cut cost at every stage of a loan lifecycle – from origination and underwriting to servicing and asset management 🚀🚀🚀

Contact us at demo@smartcapital.center or +1 (650) 513 – 0963

Smart Capital is the world’s first real-time valuation and mortgage platform. It empowers real estate investors with institutional-grade insight, unbiased investment analysis, ultra-fast property valuation & deal underwriting, low-cost transaction support, free portfolio monitoring, and capital to enable smart investment decisions and fast dealmaking.

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