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What’s the outlook for commercial real estate in Maine? Well, that depends….

It’s still not clear how many employees will want to return to an office

PORTLAND, Maine — Back in June or July, many people expected that by this fall COVID would have receded and life would be back to close to normal. Ah, if only….

That scenario didn’t pan out, and many workers who figured they’d have returned to the office by now are still working from home. Greg Boulos, a partner and commercial real estate broker at the Boulos Company in Portland, pays close attention to these developments because if workers don’t need offices, that bodes ill for his business--and for the vitality of Maine’s downtowns.

According to a survey his firm conducted, about fifty percent of employees who worked in office buildings in the Portland area before the pandemic are back in the office full time. “Obviously some [employees] are still working remotely,” Boulos notes. “That’s particularly true for the larger companies like WEX, IDEXX, Key Bank, companies like that. They’re primarily working remotely.”

As the months roll by and people keeping working from home, the questions inevitably arise: Will those folks want to return to an office? And will their employers want to pay for an office?

“In the survey that we conducted most of the employers said they’re not going to be reducing the size of their space,” Boulos says. “The bigger companies will probably end up having a hybrid model where employees work from home two days a week and three days in the office. But they still need a desk and they still need the amount of space. Fortunately for the real estate market, I don’t see a huge downsizing, which I did expect early on.”

The strength of the commercial real estate market varies from sector to sector. Retail space has plenty of vacancies. Hotels are booming. Office buildings are doing okay. What’s hot right now is industrial space.

“You can’t find industrial space—first time in my life,” Boulos told me. His career in commercial real estate goes back four decades, and there was always industrial space available. “Now,” he says, “you can’t find vacancies in industrial.”