A huge surge in rental demand and comparatively little apartment supply created a boom in multi-family construction in the last year, but with the single family housing market slowly beginning to show signs of life, the concern among banks and investors is that all that supply will hit the market just as rental demand drops off.
Based on preliminary estimates of Q4 '11 activity, multi-family loan origination volume increased to $82 billion in 2011, up from $50 billion in 2010, according to Chandan Economics. Understandably, some lenders and investors are starting to ask questions.
"While 2012 should be another good year for apartment REITs, there is concern amongst some investors and managements that market expectations may be hard to beat," say analysts at Sandler O'Neill. "Based on discussions with managements, revenue growth should match sentiment but expense growth may be the wildcard."
Rents have been rising steadily as apartment vacancies drop and "rental nation" pervades consumer sentiment, but 2012 will likely not see as robust rent growth as 2011; housing affordability continues to improve and renting is becoming ever more expensive than owning.
"A stretched consumer is beginning to push back harder against rental increases, and new supply and a slowly healing single-family market will begin to equalize what has been a lopsided, renter-dominated housing market for over 5 years," say analysts at Green Street Advisors.
Mortgage applications surged 23 percent last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers association, although most of that was refinances. Another positive came from the NAHB's home builder sentiment index, which saw big gains in builder confidence, citing improved sales and buyer traffic. So is there real cause for concern about apartment demand?
"Only in some markets," says Sam Chandan of Chandan Economics. "Austin is a case in point. The supply response has been unusually strong there. Apart from specific cases like that, we do not anticipate a strong reversal in the rental bias until jobs accelerate markedly."
Since 2004, when homeownership rates peaked, the population of 20-34-year-olds grew by 2.8 million, according to researchers at CoStar Group, a commercial real estate information company. But the number of households shrunk by 300,000. In other words, younger Americans were doubling up with roommates or moving back in with their parents.
"This suggests big pent up demand - as much as 1.4 million new households within this prime renting cohort," says CoStar's Suzanne Mulvee.
We also have to remember that many Americans now have either damaged credit or not enough of a downpayment to qualify for today's low interest rate mortgages. That could keep them as renters for many more years, as credit standards aren't likely to loosen any time soon.
Pent-up demand will, like everything else in real estate, vary from market to market. In Washington, DC, for example, investors in multi-family are still very bullish, as home prices are strengthening and apartment supply is still limited. In other areas, like Las Vegas, where distressed homes are selling at big discounts, rental demand may wane more quickly for apartments, as those unwilling to buy choose to rent single family homes.
Another headwind to the multi-family sector could be more investors buying foreclosed single-family homes in bulk to rent. With federal regulators and the Obama administration seriously considering a program to sell bulk foreclosures owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there could suddenly be a large supply of single family rentals competing against multi-family buildings. Again, that would largely be in the sand states, as there are far fewer foreclosed homes in major cities where apartments are and will likely continue to see big gains.