August 9, 2023 by Dymphna

Is office to apartment the next big play?

The office market is struggling. But that’s creating opportunities of their own.

Want to know the next big trend in property?

Knocking down office towers and building apartments.

The office sector is in a bit of trouble. Companies have been slow to bring their workforces back to the city, or are opting for hybrid work arrangements which mean less footprint is needed in aggregate.

As a result, office vacancy rates are sitting around 30% in Australia, and property values are tanking.

That’s bad news if you own office high-rise, and some people worry this might be a flashpoint in the next financial crisis.

But every crisis creates an opportunity.

And in Canada, one investor is snapping up offices at bargain prices, with a view to turning them into apartments:

Don’t get Vincent Chiara wrong. Like many investors in the real-estate industry, he still has doubts about the future of office buildings.

But as Chiara snaps up these properties, rapid-fire, in cities across Canada, he’s convinced he’s caught onto something that everyone else has missed: Prices have now plunged so much that in many cases they’re actually below the value of the land itself.

To Chiara, whose Montreal-based firm Groupe Mach has shelled out more than $C1 billion ($1.1 billion) on this bet since March 2020, this makes for a classic buy-and-knock-down trade. The gap between the price tag and the value of the land, he says, helps cover the cost of the demolition and paves the way for the construction of something – primarily, apartments – that is in hot demand in Canada and, more broadly, across much of the world.

“If there’s enough buffer between the price I paid and the value of what this property is sitting on, then I’m land banking,” he said. “If some of these office assets go sideways, then we’ll redevelop them.”

The reason this might work is because Canada’s big cities, like many others around the world, have a housing shortage. That means land that can be used to construct new homes carries a premium.

Chiara uses a visit to Groupe Mach’s most recent purchase, a 1980s-era campus of blue glass towers and green courtyards in Toronto’s suburbs, to explain. Mach paid $C165 million for the property, but not before checking how many apartments could be built on the land. With the potential for 2.5 million square feet (232,260 square metres) of residential space, Chiara estimates the empty land would be worth $C250 million – a premium to his purchase price, which he says could cover the cost of demolishing the office buildings entirely.


There’s a couple of interesting lessons here.

First, property is always a mix of two assets – the land and the dwelling. Generally it’s the land you’re paying for, and it’s what enables you to create value.

Second, the housing shortages in the developed world – Canada as much as Australia – create epic demand for housing.

That demand creates opportunities. When you can service that demand you’re creating value, and will get paid for that.

There are still opportunities everywhere.