Residential and commercial real estate are finally enjoying a solid recovery. Housing prices are rebounding nationwide, and residential construction was a leading contributor to overall U.S. growth last year. The market for multi-family apartment buildings is on fire, and money is also pouring into office buildings and retail space.

But national numbers only tell part of the story. To get more texture, we recently hosted regional forums in four very different markets: Pasadena, Omaha, Boulder and Denver. What we found was a wary optimism. Yes, foreign and domestic investors are snapping up properties, often with cash-only offers. But the underlying economic drivers still are weaker than many would like – a reason for caution.

“We’re dealing with money from Europe and the Pacific Rim, as well as people with cash in the United States,” said Chris Nikchevich, president of TNG Real Estate Services, a commercial real estate brokerage in Pasadena, Calif, who was one of our “real world” panelists at the Pasadena forum. “For every single investment deal that we go after, there are seven or eight all-cash proposals going into the deal. So it’s a dogfight…but are they into property because the market is good? No. They are into property because there is a lot of cash around.”

In city after city, participants expressed an acute awareness that the real-estate rebound has as much to do with global money trends – low interest rates, idle cash and a shortage of investment opportunities elsewhere, especially Europe – as with growth at home.

I predict another year of subpar recovery for the United States. As I told participants, our forecast is for the economy to grow, albeit slowly, by 2% to 2.5% in 2013. Inflation will remain low, but unemployment will stay near 7%.

For Nikchevich, that raised an important question: What will happen when other avenues of investment, such as Europe, become more appealing? Absent more growth at home, he predicts, commercial real estate could see a slight decompression 18 months or two years from now.

Nebraska, buoyed by strong agricultural prices, is one of the nation’s bright spots and has seen its jobless rate slip below 4%. Prices for farmland have soared in the past several years, to the point where many investors fret about a speculative bubble.

At our Omaha forum, commercial real estate experts described investors who were hunting for bargains as much as betting on growth. “Investors are chasing yield,” said Mark Seger, executive vice president of CB Richard Ellis/MEGA in Omaha. “Fly-in investors,” who had been bidding up prices of farmland, are now reinvesting their gains in commercial real estate, according to Seger.

CBRE’s transaction volume in Omaha commercial real estate roughly doubled in 2012 to $330 million, Seger said, and he is optimistic about 2013. That’s good news, but it doesn’t mean that underlying demand is booming. The vacancy rate for office space in Omaha is about 13.9%, only modestly better than the rest of the country.

That’s noteworthy because demand for office space is closely tied to job growth, and even employers in Omaha are being cautious, according to panelists in the forum conversation. “Our clients have expressed concern about the economy,’’ said Seger, adding that many companies are using technology to extend growth without hiring more employees.

Wary optimism was also the watchword at our other forums. Though housing prices are skyrocketing in the tech-heavy San Francisco Bay Area, statewide unemployment for California is extremely high at 9.8%. And though Colorado is seeing growth in its technology and energy sectors, its unemployment rate is 7.6%

John E. Starke, a veteran real estate investment strategist in Denver, said that foreign and domestic investors were active in Denver’s commercial real estate last year. Colorado’s economy expanded by about 3.9% in 2012, according to Starke. That’s good, but not great for a recovery, he says. And, Starke doesn’t expect that rate to increase in the next several years. Commercial real estate activity around Denver jumped in 2012, but is now flattening a bit. Office vacancy rates declined by about 12.2% last year.

The darling sector in each of our cities, as it is nationwide, is multifamily rental housing, according to panelists at the various forums. They feel this largely reflects a major decline in homeownership caused by collapse of the housing bubble, the recession and tighter lending standards. It may also reflect disillusionment about homeownership among younger “Generation-Y” families. Regardless of the reason, rents are climbing and apartment vacancy rates have slipped to about 5 percent nationwide. In Denver, the vacancy rate is down to 4.9%.

But multifamily housing is an exception to the general picture. Demand for rental apartments surged in part because the housing bust and recession turned millions of homeowners and would-be homebuyers into renters. By contrast, demand for office and retail space ultimately depends on increases in employment and personal income.

Our takeaway: avoid euphoria. Our Investment Advisory & Management team agrees that that the real estate rebound still has a way to go. Abundant cash, low interest rates and bargain-hunting will continue to drive yield-starved foreign and domestic investors. But without stronger growth at home, the risk for investors is that macro money flows can turn against them if opportunities improve elsewhere.

Drew Brahos is a market strategist and senior portfolio manager at Bank of the West Wealth Management

Drew Brahos, market strategist and senior portfolio manager

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