Small Commercial Real Estate Market

This blog post was written by Jed Smith, Managing Director, Quantitative Research and George Ratiu, Director, Quantitative & Commercial Research 


NAR’s Commercial Real Estate Market Trends report summarizes sales and rental activity based on a quarterly survey of commercial REALTOR® practitioners[1].  A second report, NAR’s yearly Commercial Lending Survey report provides information on commercial real estate financial issues addressed by REALTORS®.[2]  Both reports present commercial real estate information generally not available elsewhere: the average commercial transaction size in markets served by REALTORS® has been reported as in the neighborhood of $1.6 million, significantly below the $2.5 million threshold typically used by major databases in providing information on commercial transactions.  Although many REALTORS® participate in transactions above the $2.5 million threshold, in general REALTORS® report that they serve a segment of the commercial real estate market for which data are generally not reported—Small Commercial Real Estate transactions (SCRE) under $2.5 million, in contrast to Large Commercial Real Estate transactions (LCRE) over $2.5 million.

Size of the Commercial Market

Commercial space is heavily concentrated in large buildings, but large buildings are a relatively small number of the overall stock of commercial buildings.  Based on Energy Information Administration data approximately 72 percent of commercial buildings, accounting for 20 percent of commercial floor space are less than 10,000 square feet in size.  An additional 8 percent of commercial buildings, accounting for approximately 9 percent of commercial space are less than 17,000 square feet in size.  Most of these buildings would typically sell for under $2.5 million.  The buildings provide the types of commercial space that the average American encounters on a daily basis—e.g., strip shopping centers, warehouses, small offices, supermarkets, etc.  These are the types of buildings that are important in local communities, and REALTORS® are appearing to be quite active in serving these markets.

In short, the commercial real estate market is bifurcated, with the majority of buildings (81 percent) relatively small (SCRE), but with the bulk of commercial space (71 percent) in the larger buildings (LCRE).  Data are readily available for transactions in excess of $2.5 million; however, there is in general a lack of data for smaller transactions—many of which are handled by REALTORS®.  For example, the Urban Land Institute has reported an average yearly volume of commercial sector transactions for 2012-14 at approximately $360 Billion[3]; however, this estimate appears to exclude much of the 28 percent of SCRE commercial space located in relatively small buildings.

Data for a precise estimate of the level of sales associated with SCRE are unavailable. The commercial real estate sector lacks the equivalent of a residential Multiple Listing Service.  The limited information available leads to the conclusion that SCRE commercial buildings tend to sell for significantly less per square foot than do larger buildings.  Arbitrarily assuming a 50 percent price discount relative to large buildings along with the assumption that smaller buildings turn over at a lower rate, one could estimate yearly sales for SCRE to be in the neighborhood of $50 – $70 Billion annually.

Some Comparisons: Small vs. Large Commercial Real Estate Sectors

Based on NAR’s Commercial Real Estate Market Trends one can compare the two market segments—SCRE properties valued below $2.5 million vs. LCRE properties valued above $2.5 million:

  • Sales: In 2014 REALTORS® reported SCRE sales volume up 10% from a year ago for the less than $2.5 million sector.  In comparison, data for the LCRE segment showed a sales volume increase of approximately 17 percent for 2014 vs. 2013. The contrast between the two markets is sharper when taking into account a longer time horizon, and it underscores the post-recession difficulties experienced in sales of smaller buildings and buildings located in secondary/tertiary markets. Over the 2009-14 period, sales volume for LCRE markets averaged 35 percent growth. For the same period, sales volume in SCRE markets averaged a negative one percent growth.
Sales Vol

  • Prices: REALTORS® reported that commercial sales prices increased 4% year-over-year during 2014.  Data for the LCRE market segment indicated an overall weighted average of transaction price increase of approximately 7 percent. Taking a longer horizon approach, the differences in price growth remain wide apart. Averaging year-over-year price growth rates for the two markets during the 2009-14 period illustrates the steep decline in valuations for assets in the SCRE markets. Even with the recovery of the past two years, sales prices in the SCRE markets from 2009 to 2014 are still down 7.6 percent. Prices in the LCRE markets are up 1.1 percent.

Sales Price

  • Cap Rates: REALTORS® reported that SCRE cap rates averaged 8.0 percent during Q4.14.  Data for the LCRE segment for recent cap rates averaged 7 percent.  Whereas steady cap rate compression characterized the past six years in major markets, capitalization rates in SCRE markets exhibited higher volatility.  Moreover, data from SCRE markets clearly display the yield premium associated with secondary/tertiary markets. Averaging the cap rates in LCRE markets over the 2010-14 period, results in a 4-year cap rate of 6.9 percent. Applying the same procedure to data from SCRE markets, produces a 9.4 percent yield.

Cap Rates

  • Vacancy Rates: REALTORS® reported that vacancy rates in the SCRE markets were mixed across property types. For apartments, the national average vacancy rate rose to 6.8 percent (compared to rates in the 4 percent level for LCRE properties).  Office vacancies declined to 14.9 percent (roughly comparable to LCRE markets), while industrial availability rose to 11.6 percent (compared to approximately 9 percent for LCRE properties).  Retail availability decreased to 12.5 percent (compared to 9.7 for LCRE properties).  Overall, the vacancy rates showed that at the SCRE end of the markets were somewhat slower than was the case for buildings at the LCRE segment.
  • Loan Availability: REALTORS® reported regional and local banks as major sources of mortgage money.  In comparison, the LCRE segment focuses heavily on insurance companies, national banks and commercial mortgage backed securities for mortgage availability.
  • Sales Composition: REALTORS® reported a significant level of warehouse and suburban office sales; in comparison, the compiled data for LCRE properties indicates more of a focus on central business district and retail properties.

lender composition

lending sources

  • International Sales: Approximately 18 percent of REALTORS® reported having international commercial clients, substantially greater than the approximately 9 percent of international sales generally reported for larger buildings.  On an anecdotal basis, some REALTORS® involved in international sales also report being engaged in commercial sales—generally small apartment buildings, possibly accounting for some of the discrepancy.


The bulk of commercial space appears to consist of small buildings, the SCRE segment for which many REALTORS® have reported transactions.  Some REALTORS® report working on sales of larger transactions, but the majority of REALTORS® appear to be focused on serving the enterprises in their local communities—the types of businesses and places visited daily.

Sales and price growth have been lower for the smaller types of buildings in comparison to buildings valued in excess of $2.5 million.  Rental rate growth has, however, exceeded that of larger buildings, possibly due to the use of shorter term leases and the location of properties in secondary and tertiary markets, where recent economic growth may have had a greater impact than has been the case in primary markets.  For properties under $2.5 million the major sources of financing have been in local, community, and regional financial institutions.

[3]               Anita Kramer, ULI Real Estate Consensus Forecast, April 2015, Center for Capital Markets and Real Estate.

Jed Smith, Managing Director, Quantitative Research

Jed Smith is Managing Director, Quantitative Research with the National Association of Realtors®. He has worked on real estate issues for the past 20 years, providing input on a variety of housing, commercial real estate, tax, and planning issues. Recently he has been involved in several international studies.

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