The past year has undeniably challenged the commercial real estate finance sector. Most significantly, COVID-19 impacted the hospitality, retail and office sectors, creating unparalleled hotel vacancies, stressing physical retail spaces already burdened with widespread e-commerce, and leaving many offices empty with corporate tenants reviewing options for permanent remote working arrangements.
Even the apartments sector, although proven highly essential, brought challenges to landlords, renters and even legislators. With the pandemic affecting asset classes differently, the availability of debt across each one has varied significantly. However, lending activity has continued at a steady pace, especially in the multifamily and industrial arenas, which continue to address key needs during this time.
An unexpected, yet not altogether surprising, development is the pronounced role technology has played in keeping finance activity moving, irrespective of asset class. The past year forced us to alter and adjust the way we communicate and conduct business. And while technology has steadily evolved the industry in myriad ways over many years, both general and industry specific applications notably took on starring roles during COVID-19, enabling transaction flow and efficiencies while providing necessary communication alternatives amid mandated physical distancing requirements.
Mainstream Tech Use
Regional stay-at-home orders and remote working inevitably forced us to adjust, bringing more mainstream technologies into the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, utilization of video conferencing technologies, though far from new in 2020, rose steeply, as co-workers used to planning and problem solving in the office were forced to meet online instead.
Additionally, as in-person conferences became near impossible to schedule, virtual exhibition halls and panel presentations began cropping up, albeit with widely varying success and value to sponsors and participants. While the vaccine rollout continues at a slow pace and we wait for herd immunity, the in-person event calendar for the commercial real estate industry, like all other industries, is questionable. For the time being, many online events remain on our calendars for 2021.
Real Estate Technologies
Commercial real estate technologies have also stepped up their game over the past year. Virtual property inspections have become commonplace, keeping personnel safe from infection. In addition to the operational advantage of making finance transactions possible, there are fiscal and practical benefits, as well. Virtual inspections reduce the need for business travel, saving significant time and travel costs.
One ongoing consideration, as virtual inspections become increasingly commonplace, is security of data as well as the preservation of photography and hefty video files. Expect enhancements to inspection related technologies to be forthcoming.
In addition to encouraging virtual inspections over the past year, the agencies, specifically Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, have also expanded the digitization of their respective platforms, enhancing both automation and APIs. Both agencies are heavily focused on driving innovation through their respective processes, facilitating improved ways for lenders to communicate electronically with them, albeit through different approaches.
Freddie Mac, with its My Optigo B2B platform, has developed a simplified way for lenders to submit underwriting data and analysis compiled on their own preferred internal platforms directly into Freddie’s. The technology eliminates the typical documents and spreadsheets of the past and reduces errors, duplicate entries and time-consuming manual labor.
Ultimately, lender partners can focus on analysis rather than on the physical task of moving data. In mid-2020, Freddie Mac notably asked all lender partners to shift to this process.
Fannie Mae’s automation focuses on the registration and submission of deals. The agency’s DUS, or Designated Underwriting and Servicing, is a gateway API that allows lender partners to register new deals and update deal data in Fannie Mae’s portal.
While each agency is employing a different approach, their respective technology advances showcase their commitment to streamlining the commercial real estate lending process end-to-end.
Separate from the agencies, the technology employed by lenders also became front and center when the pandemic hit. Finance providers found themselves on either the right side of, or two steps behind, technology last spring when the extent of the crisis became apparent.
Those with platforms intuitively designed to establish regular touch points with borrowers throughout the loan process—from origination through maturity and servicing—experienced a seamless advantage in educating and counseling their customers through refinance opportunities, as well as forbearance options.
These touch points also proved that lenders with intuitive technology platforms possess a better understanding and relationship with their borrowers, which renders benefits inside of a crisis like COVID-19, as well as beyond.
In retrospect, all of these technologies played a major role in enabling the commercial real estate finance community to continue to conduct its business over the past year’s unprecedented challenges.
And even though some of the applications leveraged proved lackluster, they all will likely evolve and be part of our daily business routines even after the pandemic is well behind us.
Pat Jackson is CEO of Sabal Capital Partners LLC, a single-source commercial real estate lender operating nationally. Among its robust offerings, Sabal is a proud partner to both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, providing affordable, workforce and conventional loans for multifamily properties across the country. The company also offers a conduit CMBS program for core commercial real estate loans. Explore Sabal’s finance offerings at www.sabal.com.