As volatility remains ever-present and investors search for yield, where do you turn? Alternative investment vehicles seem to be growing exponentially and investors and advisors remain at the forefront of the allocation debate.
One asset class has remained tried and true: real estate, more specifically, multifamily real estate. Value-add strategies in the multifamily space remain steadfast, even during the most trying of economic conditions, and is one of the best hard, non-correlated assets acting as a hedge against inflation. Furthermore, value-add enables investors to be flexible by offering lower holding periods, often around three years, and managers have agility to allocate based on evolving demographic and economic indicators.
While REITs seem to hog the spotlight in real estate, they are simply too correlated with the general market and interest rates to offer diversification. Of all the real estate streams, multifamily is perhaps the best place to generate absolute returns based on national trends that signal high occupancy, high rental demand and low supply. Let’s examine:
Surplus renter demand outpacing supply
U.S. renters are driven by two groups, lifestyle renters and primary renters priced out of homeownership. Lifestyle renters, 69 percent of whom are married with no children below age 18, can afford a home but opt to rent due to its ease and capital preservation. Public opinion polls reveal homeownership is no longer a central tenet of “the American dream” as maintaining an owned residence is expensive, labor-intensive and many folks would rather enjoy amenities apartment communities offer. The lifestyle renter cohort emerged as a definitive renter following the housing bubble of the Great Recession.
Prime renters, (between ages 20-34) or millennials, lead a mobile lifestyle to follow the job market. This encourages renting as it offers young people the greatest flexibility or liquidity to find a better opportunity elsewhere. The mobility desire is reinforced by the difficult consequences of the recession, forcing this somewhat nomadic demographic to search for jobs away from their cities of origin. The prime renter age cohort is growing at its fastest rate on record as the children of baby boomers come of age. This record pace of growth is projected to increase prime renters age cohort by 500,000 persons per year through 2023.
Student debt is also afflicting prime renters at record levels, having increased nearly three times since 2004 for those under 30. This prolongs their attachment to rental properties or drives some to reside with family. More than one in five Americans with student loans are at least three months behind on a payment. Today, the percentage of prime renters living with parents is at the highest level since 1967, when these statistics were first collected. Even if those living at home attain employment or improved jobs, they will naturally emerge as renters because the barrier to entry for home buying remains tall. Home buying events are also being delayed, lengthening one’s status as a renter. The decision to marry and to have children are now at the oldest ages on record.
Yet construction of new apartments to meet the demand has failed to keep pace, resulting in today’s high occupancy rates, averaging 95.2 percent as of June 2016 according to Axiometrics. Axiometrics also reports multifamily permits issued in the trailing 12 months of 381,000 units, which compares favorably to the aforementioned growth in the prime renter age cohort, resulting in continued high occupancy levels coupled with above-average rental growth rates. Additionally, home ownership rates have yet to find a bottom almost a decade following their peak. Each 1 percent decline in the home ownership rate is estimated to represent nearly 1.1 million new renters, according to Census Bureau statistics.
Millennials pick suburbs over urban centers
The most opportunistic multifamily investments are not in the nation’s biggest cities of New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. Rather, they are often in suburban areas in the South and Midwest, buoyed by business-friendly policies that have opened new jobs for millennials. Enhanced business environments have led to the relocation of major corporate headquarters such as Toyota, away from traditional Californian urban cores, to Texas, for example. Other key markets with thriving suburban economies include North Miami Beach, Orlando, Florida’s Gulf Coast, Dallas and Denver. New and sustainable jobs are emerging in the tech, corporate and financial services industries. These higher wages will allow young people to rent higher-quality apartments all the while having a multiplier effect on the local economy.
How to make the most of multifamily investing?
Multifamily properties, especially those in the middle market, provide a combination of significant yield and absolute returns in these increasingly volatile times. For advisors and clients, this can be an attractive avenue to achieve a steady return stream as traditional fixed-income allocations provide low to negative yields. In addition, value-add multifamily investing offers the prospect of capital appreciation, which is expected to result in absolute double-digit returns per year, while U.S. public equities are reaching record levels of volatility. Only managers that follow an agile strategy, use deep macro research and maintain local operator relationships can unearth properties that are poised to benefit from both demographics and local economic dynamics that drive value.
Eric Jones is the CIO of Dome Equities.