When something becomes “obsolete” it means that it has either lost its function or desirability due to changing technologies, requirements, or market preferences.  An easy way to illustrate this concept is to spend a moment thinking about how the way we listen to music has changed over the years.

  • “Obsolescence” is the term used to refer to something that is either out of date, or no longer in line with market requirements.
  • As it relates to a commercial real estate investment, there are three types of obsolescence:  functional, economic, and physical.
  • Obsolescence in real estate can be categorized as curable or incurable, meaning it can be fixed or it can’t.  An example of curable functional obsolescence is outdated property finishes because they can be easily updated.  Whereas an example of incurable functional obsolescence is an outdated architectural design because it could require a building to be completely overhauled.
  • Obsolescence impacts both the risk profile of an investment and the capital needed to update/maintain a property.
  • For individual investors, the risk that obsolescence brings to a real estate deal highlights the benefit of working with a private equity firm because they have the experiences and resources needed to address it.


Functional Obsolescence

Functional Obsolescence is the impairment of a real property’s functional capacity due to changes in market tastes and/or standards.  In other words, a property could become functionally obsolete when its design, style, amenities, or technology no longer meet the needs and/or expectations of modern tenants.  There are no clearer examples of functional obsolescence than in the realm of technology.  Modern tenants require high speed internet connections, strong cellular reception, advanced security features, and modern audio/video capabilities.  Could you imagine an office building without videoconferencing or high speed internet?  Properties that do not have these features could be well on their way to becoming functionally obsolete.

Depending on the situation, there are two types of functional obsolescence,  “curable” and “incurable.”  If there is curable functional obsolescence, it means that the property could be renovated or upgraded in a cost efficient manner to bring the property up to modern standards.  For example, it is possible to retrofit a property with high speed wireless internet or badge scanners for increased security.  If there is incurable functional obsolescence, it means that the property cannot be upgraded or that it is not economically feasible to do so.  For example, it would be nearly impossible to retrofit an older 10-story building with a modern elevator system.

It should be noted that there is a subset of functional obsolescence known as “superadequacy.”  It may seem counterintuitive, but it is possible to improve a property too much and that is where the concept of superadequacy comes into play.  For example, if a multifamily developer purchased a property and renovated it with luxury finishes in a market that cannot support them, the property could be considered “superadequate.”

Economic Obsolescence 

Economic obsolescence – sometimes called external obsolescence – is the depreciation in the market value of a property due to external factors that cannot be controlled by the owner.

Common causes of economic obsolescence are things like: traffic pattern changes, zoning changes, flight pattern changes, construction of public nuisance projects like a jail or sewer treatment plant, rising crime, or job loss.  For example, imagine a successful apartment complex that is located in close proximity to a major airport.  The property is full, cash flow positive, and residents like to live there due to its proximity to the airport.  But, one day the FAA decides to change the approach path to the airport.  The new pattern brings aircraft directly over the apartment complex at a low altitude at all hours of the day and night.

The property owner had no input on the change, but they will likely suffer the consequences of it in two ways.  First, tenants are likely to leave, causing increased vacancy in the property.  Second, the increased vacancy will require rents to come down to a point where they are perceived to be a good deal, despite the aircraft noise.  Combined, these economic factors can create a shortfall in operating income and drive the property value lower, perhaps to a point where it is considered economically obsolete.

Unfortunately, economic obsolescence is incurable in most cases.  In the example above, there is little, if anything the property owner could do to get the flight path changed other than to log their complaint with local authorities.  In many cases, they may have to sell the property at a loss or find other ways to deal with the erosion of value.

Physical Obsolescence

Physical obsolescence is the decline in a property’s valuation due to physical depreciation or gross mismanagement.  It is a given that there will be physical deterioration in all real estate assets over time, but it can be managed with a proactive maintenance and replacement program.  True physical obsolescence happens when maintenance requirements are ignored and the property physically degrades to a point where it has no desirability.  For example, suppose that a property owner never changes the air filters in the HVAC system.  Over time, this allows for the growth of mold and mildew throughout the property to the point that it isn’t safe for occupancy.  This would have a negative effect on the value of the property and would likely result in decreased occupancy, decreased economic life, operating losses, and potential capital losses.

The question of whether or not physical obsolescence is curable is a function of the replacement cost to fix it.  If the pricing is such that it is either cost prohibitive or the cost can’t be recovered through improved occupancy or higher rents, it is likely incurable.  However, if the cost is relatively minor, it could be cured with ease.

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