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Is Cousins Properties a Buy Right Now?

Investors have been pretty pessimistic about the office real estate industry since the start of the pandemic. Their concerns over its future are valid. After all, more and more companies are adopting permanent work-from-home policies and hybrid work models.

So what does that mean for Cousins Properties (NYSE: CUZ), a Sun Belt-focused office real estate investment trust (REIT)? The REIT's shares are down about 30% this year and trading below its pre-pandemic levels. But is it a bargain worth buying, or should investors steer clear?

Its property locations couldn't be better

Cousins Properties is the only office REIT to exclusively own class A office space in the Sun Belt. That's the fastest-growing region of the country in part due to its favorable climate, but more so due to its ample job opportunities. The eight core markets Cousins operates in -- Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tampa, Florida; Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and Nashville, Tennessee -- are major business hubs and homes to a growing number of corporations.

This is a major advantage for Cousins, as demand for office space is more likely to be sustained in these markets. Its occupancy is 87%, which is well below the levels of its peers. But that's mostly due to lease expirations, and it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The REIT's gross rent per square foot has increased significantly because it's earning more from its more-recently executed leases. It recently leased 3.1% of its vacant space, which will push its occupancy rate to just above 90% in the coming quarter.

It's in a stable financial position

On net operating income and funds from operations -- preferred metrics for gauging a REIT's profitability -- Cousins' results continue to fluctuate, up year over year in some quarters, down in others. It would be great to see it on a consistent and upward trajectory, but the landscape in the office real estate market is changing quickly, and that volatility will likely continue to be reflected in Cousins Properties' results. Fortunately, it's in a stable financial position.

The REIT has one of the lowest debt-to-EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) ratios among its office REIT peers. As of Q1, its debt-to-EBITDA ratio was about 5.3, which is just above the REIT average and a healthy ratio.

Its dividend payout ratio relative to funds from operations is 47%, which is super-low by REIT standards. If leasing momentum continues and its revenues return to pre-pandemic levels, there is likely to be a dividend increase in Cousins Properties' future.

The stock is inexpensive

Cousins Properties' share price is about 24% lower than its pre-pandemic level, and it trades at a little more than seven times its funds from operations. Most REITs trade in the range of 15 to 20 times their funds from operations, so at these levels, it looks like a steal. Plus, at these share prices, it boasts a 4.5% dividend yield, nearly three times the average yield of the S&P 500.

That said, whether you view this stock as a buy will likely be based solely upon your opinion of the odds for a rebound in demand for office space. Cousins Properties clearly believes in this sector, as it's set to complete 1.55 million square feet of new developments over the next two years.

I personally believe the office space industry will recover and feel new class A properties in the Sun Belt will lead the way. I know a recovery in this segment won't be easy, particularly if the U.S. economy soon heads into a recession. But I'm still bullish on Cousins and feel that this is a great time to invest in the office REIT.

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Liz Brumer-Smith has positions in Cousins Properties. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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