Commercial property sales by dollar volume slumped 50% in the first quarter from the fourth quarter of 2008 as gross domestic product (GDP) contracted 6.1%. That’s according to a preliminary estimate by New York-based real estate research firm Reis. Analysts had expected GDP to contract 4.6% on an annualized basis.

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, investment in nonresidential structures — primarily commercial real estate investment — decreased 44.2% on a quarter-over-quarter basis.

“There are buildings transacting, but the drop-off is quite significant,” says Victor Calanog, chief economist for Reis. “It is the lowest volume on record since Reis began tracking transactions in 2003.”

Retail property sales fell 49% in the first quarter over the fourth quarter while apartments fell 49% and industrial properties sank 61%. In stark contrast, the office sector saw a decline of just 5.3%.

“On the surface there was only a 5.3% decrease in dollar volume for office transactions from the fourth quarter if one excluded the foreclosure auctions of the John Hancock Tower, the New York Times Building and a couple of other large transactions, the drop-off would be closer to 50%, too,” Calanog explains.

The large distressed asset sales that bolstered first-quarter office transactions include the $660 million auction of the John Hancock Tower in Boston; the $225 million sale of the New York Times Building; the $304.8 million sale of 10 Universal City Plaza in Universal City, Calif.; and the $355 million sale of the Bertelsmann Building in New York.

In addition to the sharp decline in nonresidential structures, the Commerce Department reported a 30% plunge in U.S. exports as well as a 34.1% decrease in imports.

In the industrial property sector, construction activity dropped from roughly 72 million sq. ft. in the fourth quarter to approximately 39 million sq. ft. in the first quarter, according to Robert Bach, chief economist for Santa Ana, Calif.-based Grubb & Ellis.

“I think construction activity will continue to decline,” says Bach. “The thing that struck me is how quickly industrial construction is declining. It’s just plummeting to levels lower than we saw in the last recession.”

One bright spot in the GDP figures, however, was consumer spending, which rose 2.2% in the first quarter after falling 4.3% in the fourth quarter of 2008. “It looks like there are some signs that consumers are coming back and I think that’s a positive,” Bach notes. “It also suggests that the stimulus package with the tax cuts is having some effect.”

Calanog disagrees. “I don’t know if you want to hang your hat on glimmers of hope or stabilization for [consumer spending],” he says. “If you drill down into it and take a look at what people are spending their money on, it’s really the purchases of durable goods.”

Spending on durable goods rose 9.4% in the first quarter after falling 22.1% in the fourth quarter. The increase following the sharp decline could be an indication of pent-up demand, says Calanog. Durable goods include necessities, such as refrigerators, which are seldom replaced. Meanwhile, non-durable goods, a greater reflection of discretionary spending, rose a scant 1.3% and spending on services rose just 1.5%.