Going, going . . .

Increasingly, sellers are turning to auctions to unload their properties. Even the trophy ones.

When Intel Corp., the Santa Clara, Californiabased semiconductor manufacturer, decided to unload its Puerto Rico assembly plant, it did something it had never done before. Instead of hiring a real estate brokerage to sell the 68-acre complex, it signed up an auctioneer to drum up interest in the 428,000 square feet of office, manufacturing and distribution space. Oak Brook, Illinoisbased Inland Real Estate Auctions received inquiries from more than 100 interested buyers. And when the gavel went down in a meeting room at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare on August 8, the Lightstone Group, a private investor in Lakewood, New Jersey, owned the former Intel site. The reported winning bid: around the minimum price of $10 million.

More and more owners are turning to auctioneers to sell their properties. Other recent auction deals include the record-breaking sale of the 1.92 million-square-foot GM Building in Manhattan, which New York developer Harry Macklowe bought from Conseco in late September for $1.4 billion, or about $735 a square foot; and WorldCom’s 540,000-square-foot office property in Arlington, Virginia, which Orlando, Floridabased Commercial Net Lease Realty bought for $142.8 million from the once high-flying telecom company.

In both cases the sellers had filed for bankruptcy protection, but auctions are not just for troubled properties anymore, says David Frosh, head of the brokerage business of Irvine, Californiabased real estate services firm Sperry Van Ness. “Auctions are one of the best places for trophy properties in a very competitive market,” Frosh explains.

“An auction often gets a real premium,” says Steven Good, the CEO of Sheldon Good & Co., a Chicago real estate auctioneer.

Auctions started to take off in the early 1990s, when many lenders foreclosed on white elephants built during the go-go ‘80s. At the same time, Resolution Trust Corp., the government agency charged with managing the vast amount of real estate taken over from failed S&Ls, sold much of its inventory at auction.

Just $10 billion of real estate was sold at auction in 1980, according to Bloomington, Indianabased Gwent Group, a consulting firm. In 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, the volume rose to more than $54.5 billion. Real estate auctioneers expect the total to hit $65 billion this year.

A real estate auction can take several forms. In a sealed-bid process, prospective buyers face a deadline for submitting bids on paper, whereas a so-called open outcry auction brings interested bidders to a particular location for the fall of the gavel. Some auctions set a minimum bid. In a reserve auction the seller may reject the highest bid within a specified time frame.

For a seller, the greatest appeal of an auction is speed. A property can be disposed of in weeks instead of months. In addition, an auction permits the seller to set virtually all of the parameters for the deal -- except price.

“Auctions allow sellers to control the timing and the terms of the sale,” says David Lichtenstein, chairman and principal of Lightstone. “An auction is a take-it-or-leave-it process.”

Auctions can be especially helpful in boosting the price when a property is difficult to value, proponents argue. “Ultimately, the auction maximizes pricing because of the competition it creates,” says Frank Diliberto, senior vice president and sales manager at Inland, which auctioned the Intel property.

Still, a stigma lingers: For many investors, an auction suggests that a property is distressed. “Today we wouldn’t advise a client to execute a formal auction process,” says Jon Caplan, senior director in the financial services group of Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate services firm.

But others argue that the stigma has faded. “The auction has continued to grow, even during favorable real estate markets,” says Diliberto. “It’s coming into the mainstream.”