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NEW YORK CITY-Sale-leaseback activity totaled $798.5 million during the first half of the year, according to data from Real Capital Analytics Inc., the lowest volume for comparable periods in the last nine years. The second-lowest comparable period was in 2002, when almost $1.37 billion of sale-leasebacks were recorded. Even the first half of last year was considerably more active, with $3.95 billion of sale-leasebacks. The first half of 2007, by contrast, saw nearly $6.17 billion worth.

Of course, sale-leasebacks are no exception to the fact that volume of commercial real estate sales is down dramatically across the board. All commercial property sales during the first half of 2009 totaled a mere $18.78 billion, according to New York City-based RCA, which tracks properties and portfolios of $5 million and greater. For the first half of 2008, that figure stood at $88.44 billion. And as the market was peaking in 2007, total commercial property sales for the first six months of that year totaled $267 billion.

So while the sheer dollar volume is down, sale-leasebacks are accounting for a greater portion of the overall commercial property sales market. What’s more, experts indicate there is the potential for significantly more sale-leaseback business to be done this year.

“What was actually executed in the market in the first half of the year was a very small fraction of the corporate appetite to undertake sale-leasebacks,” says Jay Koster, managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle’s corporate capital markets business.

Sale-leaseback investor AIC Ventures LP looked at about $3 billion of deals and closed on $250 million of them during 2008. This year, says managing partner David Steinwedell, the Austin, TX-based company is likely to look at double that, $6 billion of transactions—to close on $300 million worth. “I think demand has picked up, but while demand has picked up the sellers’ side, we’ve been even more stringent on our underwriting,” Steinwedell says.

Both Koster and Steinwedell agree that the bid-ask gap and the lack of debt are the chief hurdles standing in the way of greater sale-leaseback activity. But both also report that pricing is becoming less of an issue. As Steinwedell puts it, parties are starting to “get used to what’s the new reality in terms of pricing.”

Among recent deals closed by AIC was a 435,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Chicago leased back to World’s Finest Chocolate. The family-owned company planned to use the proceeds to reconfigure their bank debt and expand their business, says Steinwedell. Other recent deals have been with Women’s Apparel Group, Fitz Manufacturing Industries and Orange County Container Group. Such middle-market companies have historically been AIC’s credit focus, though Steinwedell notes that with much less competition in the market today, AIC will also be looking at more investment-grade deals. It expects to roll out its eighth sale-leaseback investment fund, with $300 million of total buying power, later this year.

Koster is seeing a steady deal flow, too. Among the deals he and his team have on the market now include a portfolio of media towers; several portfolios of retail properties (he says he sees strong retailer demand for sale-leasebacks); and several industrial/manufacturing facilities.

In fact, he says he expects the volume of sale-leasebacks will pick up significantly in the latter part of this year. “My expectation is the second half of ’09 will probably see twice the volume we saw in the first half,” predicts Koster. “There’s still significant corporate interest in sale-leasebacks as a capital generation/balance sheet management tool.”

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