The robust development pipeline has not dampened investor appetite.
The multifamily housing sector is defying gravity. Property fundamentals and investor appetite are holding steady under a heavy load of new deliveries.
The multifamily market already is several years into its bull run, generating strong property performance and a surge in supply. Yet renters continue to absorb much of the new inventory coming onto market, with national vacancies rising only 10 basis points in the second quarter of 2018 to a 4.7 percent average, according to Yardi Matrix.
“We see the U.S. multifamily market as being dynamic, especially over the past year,” says Doug Ressler, director of business intelligence at Yardi Matrix in Santa Barbara, Calif. Approximately 875,000 new units were completed between 2014 and 2017, with another 140,000 units in the first half of 2018. Most construction occurred in the top 30 metro areas, with a high concentration of class A luxury apartments being built.
Some markets are showing softening in the high-end segment of the market, especially in the Midwest. Yardi Matrix is predicting that overall performance is going to be fairly consistent and positive in most cities, Ressler notes. In fact, high-growth metros such as Dallas; Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Denver all saw an improvement in their occupancy rates during the first half of 2018, with vacancies in all four markets hovering at around 5 percent. “With deliveries in their third year of cycle peaks, the increase in occupancy rates demonstrates the resilience of apartment demand,” he says.
The big question is how metrics will hold up, especially with a significant number of projects still underway or planned. “Development remains strong in all sectors and all submarkets here in Denver,” says Rick Egitto, CCIM, principal of capital markets in Avison Young’s Denver office. “Vacancies have ticked up a bit to just over 5 percent, but given the large amount of product delivered, this is not significant,” he says.
Yet the players have changed in terms of who is actively building. Some early groups constructing apartments in Denver in 2010 to 2013 have slowed their activity, while other national firms have stepped in to pick up the slack, Egitto says. Developers also are less active in the core of the city and now are taking a bigger step into suburban markets, such as Aurora, Parker, and Golden, to find new opportunities.
Rising Costs Create Added Pressure
Developers recognize the impact of rising construction costs and moderating rent growth. Although there has been a slight pullback in units under construction, the pipeline of prospective projects actually is climbing, Ressler notes. “We think those challenges are going to play to the larger, established industry veterans,” he says.
Developers are being more selective in where they build, too. Development is continuing in gateway markets and metros that are dense enough to handle large fluctuations in supply. Conditions also remain favorable in secondary markets that are leading the nation in employment growth or where population growth is driving demand, including key markets in Florida and the Southwest, Ressler says. Areas with strong growth potential, like Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Miami, and strong secondary and tertiary markets with good economic drivers, such as a growing technology hub like Boise, are attracting developers as well, he says.
Decatur, Ga., is a tertiary market where rents are “going through the roof” due to new construction that is delivering at higher price points, according to Jim Brewer, CCIM, broker and owner of Decatur-based Brewer Agency LLC. “I have never seen this much new construction in this small a market in my life,” he says. Decatur started working on a pedestrian-oriented community about 30 years ago that’s now in full blossom, attracting young, upwardly mobile renters, he adds.
Construction costs are perhaps the most significant headwind developers are facing. In some cases, costs for materials and labor have risen nearly 30 percent in the past 18 months.
Rising construction costs are “squeezing the juice out of the yield” on development, says William A. Shopoff, CCIM, president and CEO of Shopoff Realty Investments, an apartment developer and investor in Irvine, Calif. Construction costs have moved at a multiple of inflation over the last two years, while rent growth in many markets has been slowing. “We are seeing developers show a higher degree of caution and approaching their underwriting for future deals with a little less optimism,” Shopoff says.
Rising interest rates and higher construction costs are putting more pressure on land prices and making it more difficult to make the numbers work on new projects. “Construction costs have risen significantly in Denver, and it has really caused the market to adjust to the new rents that have to be obtained,” Egitto says. For example, it is not unusual to see urban rents in the $2.50 to $3 per-square-foot range, and some unique locations approach $4 psf, while suburban projects generally can work at a lower $2 psf rent, he says.
In some cases, developers have built projects in Denver with an expectation that they can collect the higher rents, and they have continued to see projects lease up quickly even with these higher rates, Egitto says. Part of the success is due to the significantly different amenities compared to the older product, even though existing price comps might not have supported that price point, he says.
Investors Vie for Value-Add Deals
Investors still have a huge appetite for value-add acquisitions, even as buying opportunities have become increasingly difficult to find. “We think the value-add market is extremely competitive,” Shopoff says. Although the firm works on value-add projects nationally, it’s been more than a year since the company has taken on any new projects of this type. “Markets cycle, and there will be opportunities again, and we are always looking. But right now the yields we can achieve on value-add you can find in a better arena,” he says. Instead, Shopoff has redeployed its capital to focus on development projects, as well as pre-development projects where it buys and entitles land for multifamily and then sells to other developers.
With value-add deals getting picked over in the gateway markets and largest secondary markets, investors are looking at smaller secondary and even tertiary markets. “We have a tremendous amount of interest from investors nationally and internationally for value-add deals in the Louisville market,” says Tyler Chesser, CCIM, vice president of commercial real estate investments at Gant Hill & Associates in Louisville. “We have gotten to a point where those deals are fewer and farther between than they were a few years ago, but opportunities do still exist,” he adds.
Competition has motivated some investors to embark on value-add 2.0 projects, essentially taking a property that already has undergone some improvements and going back in for a second round of more in-depth renovation. “We have gotten to a point where most investors who are capturing opportunities are very savvy,” Chesser says. Some of these veteran value-add investors can readily identify repositioning opportunities that others don’t recognize. They are comfortable paying very aggressive prices because they see the potential to add more amenities or reduce the expense load on the operating side, he says.
For example, Chesser recently represented the buyer in the purchase of the 83-unit Lofts of Broadway in Louisville for $6.8 million. The Downtown Louisville warehouse was converted to loft-style apartments in 2005. In this case, the buyer sees an opportunity to further upgrade units with additions such as granite countertops and add new on-site amenities. “We believe that this is going to be an incredibly successful project because of the demand for this type of product,” Chesser says.
Investors Still Favor Apartments
New supply has not put a damper on investment sales transactions. Multifamily sales volume reached $69.8 billion in the first half of the year, up 11.5 percent year-over-year compared to the $62.6 billion in properties that traded during the same period of 2017, according to Real Capital Analytics.
Many capital investors still in the market are interested in multifamily buildings, especially those who plan to hold assets for the long term. Yet investors are keeping close tabs on supply growth, decelerating rents, and interest rates in what most agree is a mature stage of a prolonged growth cycle. Many investors are being selective in what and where they are buying, and some metros are still seeing a big gap between buyer and seller expectations, which is slowing transactions.
“Caution is being exercised by most to ensure past mistakes of a previous cycle are not repeated,” Chesser says. In Louisville, investors are concerned about oversupply and slowing rent growth, and the current lease up and stabilization of new communities are being monitored closely. However, the reports of outpaced performance to expectations continue to fuel demand in the Louisville market, especially among national and international buyers looking to achieve higher yields than they can find in some gateway markets and larger secondaries. “We have found that our market has really struck a chord with investors. We have yield and a diverse market with employment across many different industries, population growth, and many strong indicators that folks like,” Chesser says.
Other markets have seen a notable shift. Buyer sentiment has changed radically in New Jersey’s Gold Coast market over the past six months, along with higher interest rates, while seller expectations have not changed. That disconnect is causing stagnation in the market, says Chris Cervelli, CCIM, president of Cervelli Real Estate & Property Management in North Bergen, N.J. “Properties are starting to sit around a little bit longer,” he says. Investors are not oblivious to headwinds such as rising interest rates, slowing rent growth, and a still-active development cycle. In addition, the trade wars and tariffs are making some investors nervous. “Everybody feels like the music is stopping, and no one wants to be left holding that bag when it does,” he says.
The flip side is the abundant debt and equity in the market, and many investors and lenders like the risk-adjusted returns on multifamily units relative to investment alternatives.
“There is still a tremendous amount of equity – both institutional and private equity – that loves the multifamily space,” Shopoff says. “If good product comes on the market, there are multiple buyers for it.” Interest rates have moved higher, but rates are still relatively low. People can still buy a property at a 5 percent cap rate, put debt on it at 4.5 percent, and have positive leverage and rent growth, plus some tax shelter and inflation protection, he says. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of buyers today. That shine could come off at some point, but we don’t see it,” he adds.