Rentals continue to lead

Corporate landlords are benefiting from the worst U.S. rental-housing shortage in more than a decade as construction trails demand and more Americans opt to lease rather than buy.


There’s an under-supply of single-family houses and apartments to rent for the first time since 2001, according to an analysis by Frank Nothaft, chief economist at mortgage buyer Freddie Mac, based on available inventory and historic vacancy rates. The deficit in the third quarter was about 350,000, the most in records dating back 14 years.

The shortage is giving the upper hand to institutional investors who spent more than $25 billion since 2012 buying single-family homes to rent. While the market for apartments has been in favor of landlords for five years, owners of houses are now able to increase rents and reduce turnover to boost profits.

“It’s that supply-demand equation that allows us to get aggressive about raising rents,” Stephen Schmitz, chief executive officer of American Residential Properties Inc. (ARPI), a landlord with more than 8,500 homes, said at an investor conference this month. “Three years ago, you would go to raise somebody’s rent and they could say, ‘I’ll go down the street and pay $100 less than I’m paying you now.’ But today they can’t because all those houses down the street are occupied.”

The U.S. rental-vacancy rate fell to 7.4 percent in the third quarter, according to Census Bureau data. The market is considered balanced, with neither landlords nor tenants having the upper hand when it comes to rents, at a vacancy rate of 8.2 percent, based on the average from 1994 through 2003, according to Nothaft.

Vacancies shrink

The housing surplus peaked at almost 2 million units, including 1.2 million rentals, in the third quarter of 2009, when foreclosures were soaring and years of speculative construction led to a glut of empty houses.

“The surplus of vacant housing has shrunk over the last few years because there has been household growth and limited new construction,” Nothaft said in a telephone interview. “In most markets and in the national data, what we’ve observed is that rents have been rising faster than inflation.”

Rents on all single-family homes and multifamily units are expected to climb 3.5 percent next year, compared with a 2.5 percent increase for home purchase prices, according to estimates this month by Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries. The U.S. inflation rate was 1.3 percent in November, with a goal of 2 percent set by the Federal Reserve.

Wall Street-backed landlords already are enjoying higher rents for single-family homes in markets hit hardest by the housing crash, where they first started buying in bulk.

Rents rise

The average monthly rent for a three-bedroom home in Phoenix surged more than 9 percent this year to $1,158, data from Westminster, Colorado-based RentRange show. Houses now lease about 10 days faster than apartments, according to a report from the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at Arizona State University.

In Las Vegas, rents on houses rose more than 3 percent to a median of $1,248 in the 12 months through November, according to RentRange. In Orlando, Florida, they climbed 5 percent the same month to $1,294.

A reviving job market is driving household formation and fueling demand for homes faster than builders are delivering them. In the Orlando area, for example, 56,000 jobs were added in the 12 months through October, benefiting landlords such as Aaron Edelheit, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based American Home, a rental company with 2,500 houses, including about 200 in central Florida.

Housing shortage

“They’re not producing many entry-level homes,” he said. “That’s what creates housing shortages, and it’s going to drive up the price of rents.”

Raising rents is likely to become a higher priority for institutional single-family landlords next year as they get a better grip on operations and how higher rates affect their pace of leasing, said Anthony Paolone, an analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co. who follows real estate investment trusts including American Homes 4 Rent and Silver Bay Realty Trust Corp.

Investors have positioned themselves to house some of the former owners of 5 million homes lost to foreclosure since the real estate crash, according to research company CoreLogic Inc. Many of those former owners prefer houses over apartments because they want more space for their children and pets. Landlords also are getting a boost from some of the 75 million millennials—18-to-34-year-olds—who are starting out as renters rather than buyers.

Bit disillusioned

The typical family renting a house from American Homes 4 Rent, an Agoura Hills, California-based REIT with more than 30,000 single-family homes, is in their mid-thirties with an annual income of $80,400, enough to afford to buy if they wanted to, according to CEO David Singelyn.

“Many of these kids saw their parents lose their home, and they’re a little bit disillusioned,” Singelyn said. “How long will that last? I don’t know. But today there’s a significant movement to becoming a renter nation as opposed to an owner nation.”

Those tenants often pay a premium to rent from new firms like American Homes 4 Rent, which mostly owns houses less than 12 years old near good schools and provides better service than mom-and-pop landlords, Singelyn said. They also move less often, with 68 percent of tenants opting to stay in the most recent quarter when their lease came up for renewal, compared with less than 50 percent for apartments, he said.

Blackstone’s rents

Blackstone Group’s Invitation Homes, the largest single-family landlord, with more than 46,000 properties, as of Sept. 30 raised rents an average of 1.8 percent to $1,474 from a year earlier on 3,200 homes that were financed through the industry’s first mortgage-backed security deal, according to Kroll Bond Rating Agency.

“We’ve seen strong demand for our homes in all 14 markets we operate,” said Denise Dunckel, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Invitation Homes. “That’s just an indication that there’s a large market that likes the flexibility that renting provides.”

American Homes 4 Rent raised rents 3 percent on renewals and 4 percent for new tenants in the third quarter, Singelyn said. American Residential Properties increased rents an average of 3.4 percent from a year earlier on renewals, while Silver Bay’s rents rose 3 percent on renewals.

Seasonal fluctuations

Some of the recent rent increases and reduced turnover may be a result of seasonality, with fewer people moving in late autumn and winter, said Jeff Brock, CEO of Key Property Services, a Marietta, Georgia-based real estate investment and management company he founded in 2001.

“People don’t move during the winter unless they have to,” said Brock. “If the increases we are getting in the seasonal tightness hold up this spring and summer, when vacancy cyclically increases, then you are seeing an institutional effect on the way rents are going.”

Single-family landlords also face limits on their ability to raise rents because tenants with expensive leases have more options than apartment renters, according to Dave Bragg, an analyst with Green Street Advisors Inc. in Newport Beach, California.

“Many apartment renters purposely pay a premium for convenience and superior sub-market locations,” Bragg said. “The highest-earning single-family renters will likely ultimately buy a single-family home.”

Family affordability

While increasing rents may help the Wall-Street backed landlords, it may slow the recovery for families and communities hurt by the housing crash, according to Sarah Edelman, a policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank aligned with Democrats.

“These companies can run profitable businesses without pushing rents higher than most families can afford,” she said.

Wall Street-backed firms have extended their purchasing even as property prices rise and low-cost foreclosures become harder to find, making it more important for them to charge higher rents to make a profit. Blackstone is spending as much as $35 million a week on houses through Invitation Homes. While that’s down from last year’s peak of $150 million a week, the company is still finding “attractive opportunities to invest,” Dunckel said.

Bulk purchases

American Homes 4 Rent is spending $500 million a quarter on property, an amount constrained by limits on the ability to raise capital.

The largest firms are buying some homes in bulk, snapping up pools from investors who began acquiring rental homes after values plunged 35 percent from their July 2006 peak and expected to sell when prices rebounded.

“We see lots of $5 million, $10 million and $15 million portfolios,” David Miller, CEO of Silver Bay, said.

“There’s still plenty of opportunity to buy,” he said.

Authors: John Gittelsohn, Heather Perlberg, Bloomberg