Tenants become buyers as office prices drop: Heather Connon reports on a growing trend in London's property market

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The Independent Online
COMPANIES looking for office accommodation in the over-supplied London market are increasingly opting to buy empty blocks instead of renting, spurred by plummeting values and low interest rates.

Last week, Antrak Group, a shipping firm, paid pounds 1.3m for the freehold of Marc House, a new air-conditioned building just south of Cannon Street in the City.

Antrak had been looking to rent space but David Kicks of Lawrence Ross, which advised the company, said it was persuaded to buy by the low costs and the prospect of owning a City freehold, which should increase in value.

Current City rents are about pounds 25 to pounds 30 a square foot, although rent-free periods of up to three years reduce the average cost to below pounds 20.

By comparison, the pounds 1.3m purchase cost of Marc House works out at pounds 100 a square foot.

'Taking financing costs and so on into account, buying is probably no cheaper at the end of the day,' Mr Kicks said. 'But as time goes by there will be no increase in rent and the capital value of the building should increase.'

He added that Antrak could also consider selling the freehold in the future, while taking the lease itself - in effect selling its own future rent flows.

Antrak will occupy only up to 10,000 of the 13,000 square feet and is looking for tenants for the remainder.

Knight Frank & Rutley, which acted for the vendors, was asking pounds 15 a square foot, but Mr Kicks said Antrak may ask less than that, depending on which floors it decides to let.

Guy Napier of Knight Frank & Rutley believes there are likely to be other, similar, deals. His firm is working on 'two or three', while Drivers Jonas and Richard Saunders are also close to completing similar sales.

'It is a long time since we saw prices of pounds 100 a square foot for freehold property in the City,' Mr Napier said.

It does, however, depend on a seller willing to take a substantial loss.

Marc House was originally owned by a firm of fur traders, but is now in the hands of the receivers.

Richard Saunders is negotiating the sale of a building in Appold Street near the giant Broadgate development - again newly built, and vacant - which is also in the hands of the receivers.

The firm's Andrew Whittaker believes the low prices empty buildings fetch put most sellers off. 'The sale is at such a loss, it is not even covering the initial land cost.'

A building in Ironmonger Lane, being marketed by Drivers Jonas, is owned not by receivers but by a trust. But, unlike the others, it needs substantial refurbishment - a deterrent to potential tenants.

Although the building was marketed for rent or sale, the vast majority of inquiries - and there were more than 40 - were from purchasers, attracted by the prospect of owning a freehold building just off Cheapside in the heart of the City, and solicitors have now been instructed on the sale. The asking price of pounds 250,000 again works out at just over pounds 100 a square foot.

(Photograph omitted)

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