2015 painted an interesting economic picture for the US amid historically low interest rates. Despite near pre-crisis unemployment rates, the Fed continued to hold off on raising rates given lagging domestic inflation and troubles abroad. While an interest rate hike is inevitable, the timing and magnitude are uncertain; even with increases looming, overall rates are likely to remain relatively low by historical standards.
With attractive long-term rates, strong property values, and an unprecedented understanding and acceptance of self-storage assets by the investment and lending communities, it's fair to say the climate for borrowers has been increasingly favorable in recent years. Although a 2016 rate increase appears imminent, the market still offers self-storage owners many viable financing options. Investors with long-term hold strategies will find conditions compelling, particularly for longer-term debt products that can insulate from rate increases. Conversely, sellers will find opportunities to sell at record prices, given ample market equity and extremely low cap rates driven by low costs of capital.
U.S. CMBS issuance for the first half of 2015 grew approximately 33% compared to 2014, on pace to record its highest post-2007 volume. This might give readers pause reflecting on a still-recovering economy; however, issuance remains below 2005-2007, and credit standards are more prudent this go-around.
CMBS lenders offer non-recourse loan products, typically with 5, 7 or 10 year fixed-rate terms, and amortization schedules up to 30 years. These loans commonly feature upfront interest-only periods. Borrowers can achieve leverage up to 75%, or higher (85%) for large loans (> $10MM), when combined with mezzanine debt. CMBS lenders are among the markets most aggressive, thus 8.0% debt yield minimums aren't uncommon as they stretch for deals with strong cash flow growth potential. CMBS lenders prefer large primary-market deals, but also compete for loans as low as $1.0 million in secondary or even tertiary markets.
The interest rate in a CMBS transaction is calculated by adding a risk spread premium to the Swap Side offering index. For example, a 10-year rate is found by adding the lender's risk spread premium to the 10-year swap; therefore, with spreads currently in the 2.25% range (225 basis points), and the 10-year swap at 2.0%, the applicable rate on 10-year CMBS money is 4.25% (2.25%+2.0%=4.25%). CMBS spreads have generally remained range bound over the last year, while US Treasuries have also remained low. The result is a winning combination that presents very attractive all-in rates for borrowers.
CMBS loans are criticized for restrictive prepayment options, limited to yield maintenance or defeasance. A borrower's cost with these prepayment options is muffled in a rising rate environment. Even so, borrowers should understand the implications of each prepayment option.
Closing costs on CMBS deals are typically around $50K, including all third party reports, lender legal, ALTA survey, title, etc. Some lenders offer competitive "fixed-cost" programs between $20-$25K all-in for loans under $5.0MM; these programs cover third party reports and the lender's legal, however there are still costs such as survey, title, and borrower counsel that fall outside of the capped cost structure.
CMBS lenders are aggressive in nature, and with the current combination of low rates and non-recourse offerings, it makes for extremely compelling loan products. Borrowers can lock in historically low rates for up to 10 years, helping hedge against interest rate risk when rates rise. CMBS debt is also assumable, another valuable potential hedge against rate increases. CMBS loans are presently among the most attractive financing vehicles available to self-storage owners.
Insurance companies also allow borrowers to lock in longer-term rates on a non-recourse basis, a similarity shared with CMBS loans. Unlike CMBS lenders, however, life companies are extremely conservative and prefer to lend on very high-quality stabilized assets in primary markets. This is also exhibited by their preference to lend to highly-experienced, well-capitalized borrowers.
Most insurance companies historically enforced $5 million loan minimums as a general rule. As competition flourished, however, some abandoned this standard and are willing to lend lower amounts. Life companies are notorious for stressing cash flow underwriting and capitalization rates applied to determine value. This measure typically results in loan advances of not more than 65% of actual value. For this reason and because of extremely selective property and borrower profiles, life companies do not compete as directly with CMBS lenders for proceeds.
The cornerstone attribute of life companies is their flexibility. They offer among the lowest interest rates available depending on structure, and borrowers can generally lock the rate at application. Furthermore, while 5, 7, and 10-year fixed-rate terms are most common, fully-amortizing structures between 10-20 years may also be available. Finally, life companies offer flexible prepayment options and generally reasonable transaction costs. In other words, life companies are extremely selective, but those who do secure a loan are in a strong position to negotiate a very attractive package.
Commercial construction in 2015 built on momentum from 2014, following several years of nearly dormant construction activity in the wake of the financial crisis. For a developer with a viable project in a high-demand trade area, the most likely lending partner is a local or regional bank willing to build a relationship and partner with the sponsor. Full recourse with a completion guarantee is typical of construction financing, at least until the Certificate of Occupancy is obtained, after which a burn down to limited or partial recourse may be allowed. Currently, conventional lenders are advancing up to 75% LTC at attractive fixed or floating rates, with "break-even," interest carry often built in. Jernigan Capital, a specialized self-storage lender, recognizes the need for new product in select markets, and is willing to offer up to 90% of construction costs on a non-recourse basis, under a participating debt structure for qualified projects. Alternatively, borrowers may find higher leverage available with SBA financing.
When negotiating a construction loan, it is critical to structure an interest only period that mirrors the timeline required to bring the property to break-even occupancy. In addition, be sure to factor the necessary interest carry into the budget. These structural features help minimize the stress associated with the financing. The key element in a successful construction financing request is planning; budget construction costs and development time-frame carefully to isolate the appropriate loan structure and help ensure the success of the project.
Commercial Banks are the largest originators of commercial real estate loans, and accordingly have been the primary source of capital for most self-storage owners. Banks are relationship-driven, thus borrowers should be prepared to place their operating and other depository accounts with that bank. Banks will also conduct an extensive credit review analyzing global cash flow, net worth, and liquidity.
Banks will lend up to 80% loan to value (LTV), and have historically funded loans ranging from 1-5-year terms. More aggressive 7 and 10-year packages have become popular amid mounting competitive pressure, packages which are often made possible with a swap agreement. Furthermore, banks typically offer amortization schedules of 20-25 years. Banks commonly require personal recourse guarantees, although the level of recourse fluctuates with leverage, and can sometimes even be eliminated for loans below a 65% LTV. Depending on the variables above, rates offered by banks can vary significantly, but can be very attractive.
Transaction costs are typically very reasonable, and owners can often negotiate prepayment provisions with a bank. Banks have also recently taken on higher-risk storage assets such as underperforming properties, particularly when there is a turn-around story, some planned construction, or a sponsor with a track record of success. This is another advantage for owners of increased competition to win business.
SBA loans are relatively new products available to self-storage owners, having helped secondary-market owners secure financing which they might not otherwise have accessed. Through 7a and 504 programs, self-storage owners have been able to secure fixed or floating rate loans when they require above average leverage. The following briefly outlines the two programs:
As with many federal programs, SBA loans are document-intensive and can be tedious. When applying, seek a lender that is Preferred Lender Program (PLP) certified, allowing them to approve loans on behalf of the association, which can speed up the process. Contact a district SBA office to learn which lenders are PLP certified.
The combination of low interest rates and staggered new development, as well as aggressive stabilized cap rates and upward pressure on rental rates creates an allure to act. Whether refinancing, acquiring or planning new development, there are many loan products available to self-storage owners. Do the research to select the right program, and get the dollars and structure needed to position for long-term success.
Based in Chicago, Shawn Hill is a principal at The BSC Group, where he advises clients on debt and equity financing and loan-workout services for all commercial property types nationwide, with an emphasis on the self-storage asset class. For a succinct summary of terms available by loan program, Shawn can be reached at 312.207.8237; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or please visit: http://www.thebscgroup.com/loan-programs.php
The BSC Group has been voted Best of Business - Finance for five years running by the readers of Inside Self-Storage.