Trashing Commercial Real Estate

Commercial real estate appears to have bottomed out, but don't wait up for a blowout recovery.

As the country's leading online marketplace for commercial real estate, LoopNet (Nasdaq: LOOP  ) provides a reliable pulse of the industry. Judging by the company's third-quarter result last night, it's going to be a slow turnaround.

Revenue climbed 5% to $19.8 million, though earnings, adjusted earnings, operating income, and adjusted EBITDA all declined slightly during the period.

The top-line gain would seem to be a better indicator than the shrinking margins, but LoopNet has also been a serial acquirer. The company now boasts nearly 4.5 million registered members, but most of them don't pay for the privilege. LoopNet's premium members -- paying an average of nearly $67 a quarter for enhanced access and listing perks -- clocked in at 69,363, less than the 69,809 paying customers a year earlier.

Since premium subs account for most of LoopNet's revenue, their shrinking numbers speak volumes. At least sequentially, the number of paying subscribers has grown for the second quarter in a row. However, their total ranks remain far smaller than the 90,000 premium subscribers LoopNet boasted three years ago.

In other words, there's light at the end of the tunnel for LoopNet, but it's still pretty far away.

LoopNet is currently trading lower than its 2006 IPO price of $12, and a far cry from its peak in the mid-$20s three summers ago.

Companies that toil away in commercial real estate are a mixed bag. Analysts see CB Richard Ellis (NYSE: CBG  ) posting healthy top- and bottom-line growth this year, but CoStar Group (Nasdaq: CSGP  ) is targeted to post lower earnings on a modest revenue uptick.

Unfortunately, this isn't the year to eye Web-based real estate plays. On the residential end, Realtor.com parent Move (Nasdaq: MOVE  ) is pegged to deliver flat earnings growth this year, while at best, Tree.com (Nasdaq: TREE  ) will merely post a narrower loss. Even China is dry, with analysts forecasting a 20% slide in profitability at China Real Estate Information (Nasdaq: CRIC  ) this year.

LoopNet remained profitable even during the darkest recessionary stretches, and it enjoys a reliably cash-rich and debt-free balance sheet. If investors want to approach the investment as a parking space, they can definitely do far worse. However, they may be sitting idle for a long time. Commercial real estate, despite the growing number of listings on LoopNet itself, will take its sweet time turning the corner.

When will commercial real estate bounce back into favor -- if ever? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

LoopNet is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has never dabbled in commercial real estate outside of the Monopoly board, though he wants you to know that he can hand you Boardwalk and Park Place at the beginning of the game and still beat you. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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