I recently began a series of interviews of individuals involved in land use and government, using their experiences as windows into the evolving world of land planning and economic development. Today’s conversation is with Alan Weidt, owner of Carolina Commercial Realty, who works throughout the Triad region, focusing on restaurants, retail, furniture showrooms and some office and industrial buildings. He has represented such companies as Lowe’s, Belk and Dillards and he recently handled the sale of Greensboro’s Carolina Circle Mall.
Outside of real estate, Alan has been a restaurant reviewer for In the Spotlight and In the Carolinas magazines. I recently ran into him at a small-venue concert by bluegrass impresario, Mark O’Connor, and continue today the conversation that began at the concert’s intermission.
How did you get into commercial real estate?
About 26 years ago, I was ready for a career change from being an Ophthalmic Technician. I interviewed my patients as to what they did as well as what they liked and didn’t like about their careers. Three of the people I questioned were involved in commercial real estate. They all were very happy in their careers and we were all compatible in terms of demeanor, style and personality. I made the plunge then and never looked back.
Tell me about the boom years of the early to mid 2000s. What were they like from your perspective?
The good times were very good. We were enjoying easy financing of projects and had confidence to undertake deals that none of us would touch today. It seemed as if we didn’t look back to previous downturns and didn’t look forward to the inevitable next wave of financial difficulties. It has been said: “Ignorance is bliss.”
Give me an example of what you called “easy financing.”
Three years ago, I bought a building on spec, needing rehab, zone change and leasing. I received money to purchase and rehab the property, walking out of the closing with cash.
Was there a single event or observation that told you a market collapse might be around the corner?
My biggest concern then was banks giving out NINJA (No Income, No Job, no Assets) loans to unqualified home buyers who amounted to no more than renters. With “no skin in the game” they could and did walk at any time. The 95, 100, and even 115% loans seemed absurd to me, not to mention unsustainable.
What was the first sign you observed that the real estate world as you knew it was changing?
It was pretty obvious, business hit a wall. Everything pretty much stopped dead. The banks stopped lending on most commercial projects. When the banks did lend, the down payments were elevated to a point where much fewer deals could be done. Housing dried up, businesses contracted and we, in the real estate business, were searching for opportunities. There was nowhere to go geographically. The problem was and is pandemic.
What has to happen before commercial property listings and sales return to normal?
Our entire economy is tied to employment. It is a vicious circle: no jobs, no money, can’t buy things, things aren’t produced, employees aren’t needed, therefore no jobs… round and round we go. What breaks this cycle? I don’t know. I hear lots of complaining and finger-pointing, but I’m not hearing solutions from anyone. U.S. exports are down as well. We are not the manufacturing entity that we once were. We’ve out-sourced much of that. The rest of the world is also in a financial “hurt locker”, therefore their buying power is compromised.
Have you seen any signs that the economy is recovering?
In the commercial real estate business, I have seen a flurry of activity lately.
Whether it’s a “bump” or a trend, only time will tell. Financing remains a problem.
Finally, does your crystal ball tell you when we should emerge from the Great Recession and commercial real estate sales and development will return to some level of normalcy?
No idea. Most “experts” are saying within 2 years. How are we going to get back? What is going to change? How will employment improve? I don’t know. Most just blindly believe that things will get better because they have before and that we can’t survive indefinitely as things are now. As bleak as my answer is, I think we are indeed crawling our way out as we speak. How or why? Because that is what America does.