The 2017 Australian commercial property outlook - Cromwell Property Group
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October 11, 2017

The 2017 Australian commercial property outlook

Australia has experienced a period of strong demand for commercial property which has led to firming yields and high prices. There is still a substantial amount of investment capital looking for opportunity but the lack of availability of suitable stock has led to a reduced volume of transactions during 2016. Most property markets are, or are close to being, fully valued.

Going forward, rising bond rates and slow to moderate economic growth will have an impact on property markets. As growth stays below long term trends, and rates rise, prices will soften.

In this type of environment, leasing conditions will re-emerge as the primary driver of property outcomes. The key question is the extent to which growth in net effective rental income will offset the negative impact of rising interest rates on yields.

Office property markets

Cyclical factors will have a greater influence on prices in office property markets than that of rising interest rates on yields. The key is to invest in strong leasing markets with prospects for strong rental growth.

Sydney remains the pick of the markets. Demand has been improving moderately but with development virtually stopped and stock availability declining due to the Metro rail project and increased residential conversions, falling vacancy rates have meant strong rises in effective rents as leasing incentives reduce.

Vacancy rates are forecast to be less than 5% for the next three years, driving further rises in net effective rents and property prices. However, strong capital growth over the last year has reduced prospective returns. There are still opportunities for investment, and this is the phase where repositioning, major refurbishment or new developments can generate returns, but each opportunity needs to be examined on its own merits.

Last year, demand for office space was moderate in Melbourne. But, unlike Sydney, there has been plenty of development to satisfy requirements. In the short term, Melbourne will be hit by a weakening of demand as it absorbs the loss of the remaining car manufacturers and many associated suppliers, as well as a slowdown in residential construction.

Once that shock is absorbed, however, Melbourne will recover. It still retains many of the advantages—notably cheap land for residential, commercial and industrial property—which gave it a competitive advantage over Sydney in the provision of back-office services for national operations. Melbourne office demand will grow slightly more strongly than Sydney in the next decade but rent and property value growth will be inhibited by the plentiful availability of sites.

The Brisbane economy is still suffering from the continuing loss of demand from mining services. In the boom, 25% of Brisbane’s office space was occupied by companies servicing mining. Demand will be hit further when the inner Brisbane apartment market turns down.

Medium term, the prospects are good as Brisbane will benefit from strengthening activity in tourism, education services and agriculture. The short term will be difficult due to the existing oversupply of office space with little prospect of a substantial improvement in demand to absorb it. The vacancy rate is currently above 15% and will still be above 10% at the end of the decade.

The Perth economy is collapsing under the weight of the end of the mining boom. Investment has further to fall and the economy will stay weak for some time. During the boom, half of Perth office space was occupied by companies servicing mining. Much of that demand is now gone and the vacancies will take a decade to absorb. Rents and property values will fall a lot further.

Adelaide is suffering from weak demand and oversupplied office space. Although the worst may be over in terms of demand-side weakness, there is no prospect of sustained growth for a couple of years as the local economy deals with the closure of the GM Holden plant. The patrol boats, frigates and submarines projects will help but not until the end of the decade.

Canberra remains a difficult market. We are coming to the end of the period of substantial oversupply and A grade vacancies have tightened everywhere except at the airport, where there is still plenty of space. However, new construction is about to get under way in Civic, while some secondary properties lie vacant and are difficult to lease.

Retail property markets

Regional and sub-regional centres

Retail property remains a highly popular investment. The volume of transactions reached record levels over the last few years and only a shortage of regional centres for sale has constrained the market. Some existing owners are instead now ploughing additional capital into centre refurbishment/expansion projects.

Retail yields have firmed aggressively over the last few years and are averaging around that of the last market peak. Yet retailing conditions are not nearly so strong. Growth has been slowing in trend terms since early 2014. While larger retailers and chains are outperforming smaller retailers, there have nonetheless been several high profile failures in the last few months.

The soft economy and weak household income growth will continue to constrain retail expenditure for the rest of this decade. Strong regional differences will emerge as former mining boom areas suffer, while those regions dependent on tourism, education services and other sectors that benefit from a lower Australian dollar enjoy stronger growth.

Shopping centre net operating incomes face further challenges from the poor performance of many anchor tenants and likely pressure on retailer profit margins (and hence their capacity to pay higher rent) from a lower Australian dollar. Changes in tenancy mix, a greater reliance on food and beverage retailers and service sector tenants, and costly upgrades will be required to protect against these threats.

Despite the challenges, centre incomes are, to a great extent, protected by anchor tenant rent and rents from non-expiring specialties on fixed annual escalations. Yields could remain low for some time but they will eventually follow bond rates up.

Large format retail

The large format retail property sector enjoyed another strong year in 2016 across a range of indicators. Strong demand from both consumers and retailers helped to push vacancy rates lower, in turn encouraging rental growth. Meanwhile, the investment market is buoyant.

However, the surge in consumer spending is now past and activity is at more moderate levels. This comes at a time when supply of centres is likely to surge after seven weak years. Reconfiguration of ex-Masters stores into centres could add up to 700,000 square metres of ‘new’ centre floor-space. Moreover, there are also 21 development sites to be accounted for.

Smaller existing centres and strip shopping locations are likely to be the main losers to the ‘new’ ex-Masters centres. Larger, dominant centres are unlikely to suffer as much. Bunnings is a clear winner in the whole process, with a major competitor gone and a great opportunity to pick up new sites easily.

Longer term, the outperformance of larger retailers and chains is expected to continue. Even so, it will be no match for the pace of growth in the 2000s.

On the investment side, demand remains strong. A record dollar value of transactions was achieved in 2015–16. The strength of investor demand has pushed down yields with further yield firming likely over the next 12 to 18 months. Rising bond rates, already putting upwards pressure on yields, will win out after that. Prime values are likely to stagnate rather than fall, but secondary centres could see a drop in prices.

Retail looks reasonably valued, with expected returns around current investment hurdle rates. Even so, retailing and retail property face major challenges. Large format retail has the best estimated return, reflecting its higher yield. Its low rent and expansion opportunities will help it to absorb the Masters properties and secure the longer term strength of the sector, but in the short term there are risks from the amount of reconfigured Masters floor-space likely to come on to the market.

Industrial property markets

The years of strong investment returns from industrial property are coming to an end, with the period of falling interest rates that had underwritten firming yields and strongly rising asset values now over.

Softer future yields will have a negative impact on valuations and also on construction feasibility, requiring higher pre-lease effective rents to underwrite the financial feasibility of development projects. The transition to higher rents will be relatively smooth, though the risk is that it may take a year or longer. If this occurs, falling vacancies would eventually deliver the necessary step-up in rents.

Industrial property development is running close to demand. Ready availability of land and development competition is keeping a lid on residual land prices, rents and property values, suppressing a cyclical upswing. That makes it less risky but slightly overvalued in relation to market hurdle rates.


This is an uncertain time for property investors. After a long period of falling interest rates driving firming yields, we are on the threshold of a phase of rising interest rates. The uncertainty is how quickly and by how much interest rates will rise. When they do, yields will soften but that will be offset by the impact of rising rents.

This suggests that yields may have a little further to firm before the impact of rising interest rates comes through.  Meanwhile, continuing soft economic growth means continuing weak demand, in the transition to a post-mining boom economy. The result is marked differences in performance between industries and regions. There are no obvious standout investments, and each investment opportunity needs to be examined on its own merits.