Strong Demand, Tight Supply Build Case for New Multifamily Development

Investors continue to prefer U.S. apartment buildings over most commercial properties, even commercial office space, as total multifamily sales volume jumped nearly 80% in the second quarter over the same perioud last year.

Although still just a fraction of its mid-2007 peak, the nearly $15 billion in sales in the quarter brought total investment for the first half of 2011 to $24.5 billion, according to CoStar Group data.

The average per-unit price of apartment properties reached $88,500 in the quarter — the highest since the third quarter of 2008, said CoStar Global Strategist Michael Cohen during CoStar’s Mid-Year 2011 Multifamily Review & Forecast.

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Meanwhile, strong renter demand continues to push down apartment vacancy rates and nudge up rents. With capitalization rates for existing properties seeing strong compression in some high-flying markets, larger multifamily developers have responded by starting to ramp up their development pipelines with new projects.

Top coastal markets continued to dominate sales volume in the first half of 2011, including Washington, D.C with $2.6 billion; Los Angeles, $2.3 billion and the San Francisco Bay Area, $2.1 billion. In Atlanta, where investors have sought a large number of distressed properties, sales totaled $1.3 billion in the first six months. In Phoenix, a housing bust market where fundamentals have picked up markedly, also logged $1.3 billion in sales.

For the second quarter, the top five transaction markets were New York City, with $1.35 billion; D.C., $1.3 billion, Los Angeles, $1.21 billion; Atlanta, $764 million and San Francisco, $689 million. Those markets accounted for about 36% of all sales volume nationwide during the quarter, with CBDs and well-located submarkets seeing the lion’s share of deals.

Institutional investors were by far the most active net apartment buyers, with net purchases of $1.6 billion on total acquisitions of $3.9 billion. REITs, private equity and owner/users were also net buyers, while REITs were also net sellers in a few markets such as Portland, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area and Atlanta.

Average apartment capitalization rates continued to fall in the second quarter to slightly below 7%, while weighed average cap rates, driven by the large high-priced transactions in prime markets, declined to 5.7%. However, cap rates for mid-size value-add and opportunity deals are also declining. Cap rates on smaller transactions remain in a holding pattern.

Top deals in the second quarter included the acquisition of a 25% interest in a 20-property foreclosed portfolio by The Related Cos. from Fannie Mae for about $300 million; TIAA-CREF’s acquisition of The Corner at 200 West 72nd St. in New York from Gotham Organization and Phillip International for $209 million, or 1.07 million per unit; and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board’s $84 million acquisition of a 44% interest in a 654-unit property in Seattle from New Tower Trust Co.

Supply Tight Now, But Construction Starts Are Rising

Job growth has been the traditional source of apartment demand in the past. But in this cycle much of the demand is coming from many former homeowners who have become renters since the beginning of the housing crisis. That trend, combined with a growing number of young people forming households, is driving competition for a diminishing supply of apartments, powering the improvement in apartment fundamental since 2009.

CoStar forecasts total supply additions of just 30,000 units in the 54 largest markets in 2011, just one-third of the pre-recession average of apartment delivered between 2003 and 2008. However, multifamily construction starts are starting to tick up, with more than 70,000 starts in the first two quarters of 2011, suggesting a rise in completions in coming years, particularly in the 2013-2015 time period, Cohen said.

“It’s worth paying attention to the supply front,” Cohen said. “This is where I think the apartment market could be a victim of its own success. While we are forecasting below-average annual supply growth, we need to monitor the permitting data and the starts data.”

Vacancies, Rent Concessions Continue to Decline

Renter demand, while not at the outsized levels of 2010, remains very strong across the board, led by the fast-growing southern metros and the rebound in Detroit. Demand growth equaled about 66,000 units in the first half compared to the extraordinary increase of 105,000 units in the first six months of 2010, which was the strongest since 2005. However, the 45,000 units absorbed in the most recent quarter was more than the absorption of the two previous quarters combined, Cohen noted.

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