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Industrial Outdoor Storage Veterans Warn Newcomers Of Potential Pitfalls

On paper, industrial outdoor storage seems like a slam dunk investment: low cost of operation, huge demand and “sticky” tenants. But those with experience in the area warn against entering it half-cocked.

An industrial outdoor storage lot houses Walmart trucks near the Lakewood neighborhood of Atlanta.

Because it is so different from other asset classes, industrial outdoor storage requires a unique base of knowledge and experience to distinguish the good deals from the bad. If the volume of investors entering the market is about to rise as high as panelists at Bisnow’s Industrial Outdoor Storage Update webinar on Dec. 9 predict, expertise will be a key differentiating factor.

For decades, IOS has been the exclusive province of either owner-occupiers or local and regional owners. Any investor looking to build a national portfolio will face the same challenges as legacy owners, only at a larger scale and greater complexity.

“The aggregation of a portfolio and the unique challenges to due diligence and management are really not to be taken lightly,” Realterm Vice President of Investment Derek Fish said on the webinar. Realterm has owned and managed IOS properties for more than 30 years.

As with any sort of industrial usage, an environmental review is a crucial element of due diligence, but there are quirks to each site that can seem small but wind up disqualifying for potential tenants: As little as one stoplight too close to the property in question could be a deal breaker, Fish said.

Realterm and Alterra Property Group, which entered the sector about four years ago and now has a joint venture with JPMorgan to purchase IOS properties, both have whole teams dedicated to sourcing and vetting acquisitions, Fish and Alterra principal and Chief Investment Officer Matt Pfeiffer said.

“This is a high-volume business for transactions, so you need to centralize all your due diligence, your environmental review, etc., so you’re just dropping a team nationally into every single space so you analyze transactional risk the same way for each deal,” Pfeiffer said. “And if you don’t do it that way, you slow down.”

Brookfield Properties started investing in IOS in the middle of last year and doesn't have a dedicated team yet, but the private equity giant overcomes that disadvantage by having a bigger appetite for risk, Brookfield U.S. Head of Real Estate Management Devin Barnwell said. One of the most common risks in the space is in the quality of tenant, given that users tend to stick around long term. Adding value to a recently acquired property with an occupant already in place may not be viable.

Clockwise from top left: Realterm's Derek Fish, Brookfield Properties' Devin Barnwell, Troutman Pepper's Sue Charles and Alterra Property Group's Matt Pfeiffer

“The majority of [tenants in] your portfolio will be regional or local companies that won’t be able to commit to longer leases, won’t be able to share in the capital required for improvements and will be very sensitive to rent increases,” Fish said. “The most common user of IOS is often a low-margin business, so a big increase in rent to market rate could destabilize the tenant.”

A small operator could also be more likely to be a less-than-ideal tenant, which has a slightly different impact in a part of the real estate market that universally functions on true triple-net leases, panelists agreed. Barnwell recommended ensuring that an IOS property has comprehensive insurance coverage.

“There is a responsibility on ownership to make sure that tenants are performing their duties,” Barnwell said. “If they defer maintenance, you may wind up having to spend capital [to fix properties] down the line.”

If an owner has the legal leeway to not renew a low-margin tenant in the hope that it can land an e-commerce merchant — as with distribution centers, Amazon is by far the biggest source of demand — then a knowledge of the local zoning particulars is a necessity.

“We’ve also seen in certain municipalities that [IOS] might be a currently allowed or nonconforming use, and if that’s the case, what are the changes that could possibly happen?” Barnwell said. “You may need to find a new tenant in six months after your previous one vacates or risk losing your zoning.”

Still, the combined forces of rising e-commerce demand and no real pathway toward an infusion of additional supply ultimately will prove that industrial outdoor storage’s risks aren’t enough to scare anyone off, panelists agreed.

“The costs [of owning IOS property] are insurance and real estate tax, which is very low compared to the carrying costs in other sectors,” Pfeiffer said. “If you’re in a good market or a good location, you should not be afraid to take a vacancy risk. And the tenant improvements are not costly enough to provide meaningful friction in leasing.”