I love watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee. During the 2008 championship in May, I was incredibly impressed watching the dozens of pre-teens—their faces a mix of joy and anxiety—as they navigated a minefield of obscure words.
One of my favorite ways to watch the Bee is to try to spot the “tell.” Just as in poker, these kid whizzes exhibit signs that give away their hands. They grin big when they know how to spell opificer, but when an unknown term comes their way, the looks of surprise, the squinted eyes, the bitten lips—each is a clue that there may soon be one less player in the field. And the other competitors eagerly await that slight advantage in the game.
Journalists also often look for the tell when interviewing sources. Last month, at the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts' 2008 REITWeek Investor Forum, our senior editors Les Shaver and Chris Wood did just that, listening to the guidance offered by multifamily CEOs to discover some hidden nuggets of wisdom about the future of the industry.
So what did they learn? The leaders of the multifamily industry talked about the good demographics and fundamentals in the market. They described the trend toward communities that are transitoriented urban infill. They lauded the seemingly recession-proof markets of Portland, Ore., and Boston.
But among all the success stories, there was also some telling information on the state of multifamily development across the country. For one, the executives at the conference reported that there were a number of markets throughout the country that were experiencing difficulty. In Southern California, for instance, job losses and a single-family housing overhang have translated into reduced occupancy and an inability to push rents. And then there's Florida. Enough said.
The most interesting point that these industry leaders made was in regard to the vastly diminished new and value-add development business. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when the delivery of new units to the market comes to a grinding halt, occupancy levels at existing properties skyrocket. But on the other hand, no new activity on the development and redevelopment side of the business also means that the country's aging apartment inventory will see no improvement until the credit markets start to loosen their grip on financing.
For savvy market watchers, there are some lessons to take away. An industry researcher recently told me that, indeed, as REITs have experienced more and more difficulty finding funding, they are turning to other options. Two of the top three: conducting individual deals with one-off investors and trying to find foreign money. But the third option—and most interesting—is that many large companies are now doing tap-dance routines trying to keep projects moving forward as slowly as possible until they are ready and able to deliver the property to the market. If I were looking for an advantage against a larger firm, that's one performance I wouldn't want to miss.
It's also quite the tell. Even if you don't know how to spell guerdon.