5 Tips for Investors considering suburban properties

1.  Some cities and states are growing, some are not.  Select accordingly.

The short story is that California, Colorado, Texas and Utah are growing the most rapidly, but check twice on Texas. Lone Star backers may be talking through their hats that oil doesn’t matter anymore. That said, Texas has a favorable business climate and a diverse economy. Five Texas cities added more than 18,000 people each between 2013-20l4; Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth. Of the list of fastest-growing small cities, Texas also dominates. Many Golden State cities are doing well (especially Irvine) and an interesting outlier is Columbus, Ohio.

2. There is a lot more suburban office space than urban, and thus more supply to satisfy investor demand.

It is natural to think of skyscrapers when thinking office, but three-quarters of office space nationally is suburban. And in a recent period, suburban office markets accounted for 88% of national net absorption while representing 73% of the square footage, reported the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT). True, suburban markets took a hit in the post-2008 recession, many reaching vacancy rates in the 20+% range. And the much-publicized demand for faux-gritty “creative space” does not suggest a newish low-rise on city outskirts. Still, suburban office space becomes more valuable during sustained economic recoveries, while CBD structures often survive downturns. The reason: Tenants migrate to relatively lower rents in either picture. Suburbs with lowest vacancy rates, reports Jones Lang Lasalle: Salt Lake City 6.0%; Boston-Cambridge 8.7%; Portland-Eastside 9.1%; Seattle-Eastside 9.6%; Portland-Vancouver 10.9%.

3. Cities are back. But suburbs didn’t die.

Many large cities are gaining population again after a few sketchy decades, although some Rust Belt titans are still shrinking, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. Suburbs, however, never really went out of style, and “exurban counties…showed their population growth rise from a low 0.4% in 2011-2012 to 0.6% in 2012-2013,” reports Brookings Institution. Good news for urban cores is not bad news for suburbia.

4. Remember urban congestion and politics.

By the very nature of congestion and density, central urban core development tends to become highly regulated, zoned and politicized. Those realities tend to freeze up supply. Thus, in any sustained economic recovery, tenants find urban cores fully booked and rents prohibitive—which is great news for suburban markets that benefit from spillover. Across the nation, headlines such as this are being read: “Doom and gloom' disappears from suburban office market,” a Chicago Business story on non-CBD scene. The article reports “vacancy (rates) fell to an eight-year low in the second quarter (2015), as expanding companies continued to boost demand for office space.” Brokerage JLL, in a Q2 2015 report, places the bulk of U.S. suburban office markets in the “rents rising” phase of market cycles.  

5. Google, Apple, Facebook; All building or have built suburban HQs.

It is true that a sterile suburban office park is the modern synonym for “banal,” but new economy hipsters are reinventing the leafy HQ. The key is to invest the green retreat with amenities, such as restaurants, coffee shops, landscaping, parks, child-care, and architecture. Also worth noting: Microsoft is in woodsy Redmond, not Seattle, and the largest office project under development in the U.S. is Exxon Mobil’s 385-acre campus in the Woodlands suburban submarket of Houston. Plenty of people still like grass lawns, white picket fences and a back patio. And an easy commute to a safe non-urban location.