Multifamily Market Outlook
Apartments’ Exceptional Resilience
Flouting expectations that new supply would slow the pace of rent gains, the apartment sector over the last year has shown exceptional staying power. Strong rental demand, particularly amongst Millennials, has allowed most markets to absorb new supply without significant disruption to growth in property income. As of the first quarter of 2015, national rent growth and occupancy rates were near their cyclical highs. The former has actually accelerated, with year-over-year increases in asking rents hitting 3.8% in 2014 and 4% on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis in the first quarter.
The view that the apartment sector is benefiting from a fundamental change in how young Americans think about homeownership has factored into investors’ readiness to bid aggressively on core and non-core properties. Prices have surpassed their historic highs, lifted by apartments’ favorable risk profile and an abundance of low-cost debt and equity. Across all markets, the national average cap rate declined to 5.5% in 2014. Debt yields have also fallen to approximately 8% as borrowers assume more debt. Life companies, banks, conduit lenders, and specialty lenders are all competing on price and structure with the venerable agencies—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—that account for the largest share of all multifamily financing.
Investors are rightfully enthusiastic about the long-term return profile of the apartment sector but they should also be cautious in evaluating the current investment climate. Over the next year, some of the underlying conditions that have defined post-recession apartment investing are set to change. At least on the margins, older Millennials will revisit opportunities for homeownership as housing markets stabilize further. In particular for those that start families, the appeal of the suburbs will grow: in the hierarchy of amenities, new parents may find that a good elementary school will suddenly matter as much as anything on offer in the urban core.
Apart from the demographic of cyclical factors that may influence household preferences for renting or owning, there are other risks to the apartment sector that must be considered carefully. Most obvious is the challenge of new supply. While the national numbers (and recent history) point to a level of new inventory that may be absorbed in stride, some markets will inevitably overbuild. In some markets, rent slow-downs have been concentrated in downtowns, reflecting the concentration of new development in a tight geographic area. Where the outlook for income growth is more measured, properties may also exhibit greater sensitivity to eventual changes in the interest rate environment.
Multifamily Market Statistics in 2015
Construction activity in the apartment sector continued to climb throughout 2014. Measured in terms of dollar spending, multifamily development activity reached $43.5 billion last year, up from $32.2 billion in 2013, and a low of just $14.7 billion in 2010. Though the year-over-year pace of increases in spending have slowed, there is still exceptional momentum in new development. Recent completions offer an incomplete gauge of the market’s capacity to absorb new space. As of the first quarter of 2015, units currently under construction are approaching their highest levels in thirty years, since the mid-1980s. The largest development pipelines are in the Texas market, including Austin, Dallas, and Houston, and in New York and Washington, DC. Relative to market size, however, Denver and Seattle will have to absorb their fare share as well.
After slowing to a still-impressive pace of 3.5% in 2013, asking rent growth jumped to 3.8% in 2014 and has kept to a strong seasonally adjusted pace in the first quarter of 2015. Market observers had expected that new supply would push both occupancy rates and rent growth slightly lower, but those projections have not proved out. With most markets running at occupancy rates above their long-term averages, concessions have virtually disappeared, with the result that effective and asking rents are not significantly different. The leading markets for rent growth in the first quarter included in Denver, New York, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle. Notably absent from the top of the league tables, rent growth is now lagging in Boston and Washington, DC, one of the few gateway or primary markets to see fundamentals falter on the wave of new supply.
Measured across the breadth of small suburban garden apartments at one extreme and the largest urban high-rise properties at the other, multifamily cap rates declined to a national average of 5.5% in 2014. Cap rates fell another 10 basis points to 5.4% in the first quarter of 2015, within range of their all-time lows. Cap rates in the most contested markets, including New York and San Francisco, are now typically in the range of 4% to 5%.
Investors have expressed concerns about a possible bubble in the apartment market, but that has not dissuaded buyers from pushing transaction volume to new highs. In spite of wider-than-average spreads, investors are girding for an increase in interest rates that will exert drags on value. The stronger the prospects for income growth, the more resilient properties should be in the face of higher costs of capital.
Market Cap Rates
Value-weighted national average apartment cap rates fell to 5.5% in 2014, marginally lower than a year before. Market average cap rates ranged from below 5% in selected gateways and primary markets to above 6% in secondary markets and markets where transaction activity was dominated by suburban garden apartment properties. The lowest cap rates were recorded in New York City, principally in Manhattan and the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts, where investment demand from domestic and cross-border buyers has pushed asset prices to record-highs. Detroit was the only major market to register an average cap rate above 7% in 2014.
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