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Multifamily Investment, Leasing Fundamentals Off to Solid Start In 2011

Many Deals Getting Done Though Investment Sales Dollar Volume Remains Far Below Peak Levels
May 18, 2011
Investor interest in U.S. multifamily properties continued at a healthy clip at the beginning of 2011, as investment sales dollar volume jumped 40% in the first quarter over the same period last year. More deals closed than in any quarter since mid-2005, according to CoStar Group data.

Just under 4,000 multifamily sales transactions were recorded in the quarter at a total volume of $9.4 billion, according to preliminary CoStar sales data, compared with $6.7 billion in first-quarter 2010 and just $3.76 billion in first-quarter 2009. Despite the heightened activity, sales were just 22% of their mid-2007 market peak of $43 billion in the most recent quarter. Sales volumes declined about $6 billion from fourth-quarter 2010.

While leasing fundamentals are no longer improving at last year’s torrid pace, investor interest by all accounts remained sharp for quality apartment product. Renter demand for apartment units remained solid in the first quarter, as the supply of new units continued to dwindle and the national apartment vacancy rate fell to 7.4%, a decline of 100 basis points since late 2009.

Despite an uneven economic expansion, "fundamentally, the outlook for the economy remains one of recovery and growth, and CoStar remains optimistic about its prospects. That is good news for commercial real estate and good news for apartment demand," said CoStar Real Estate Strategist Kevin White during the Washington, D.C.-based company's recent First Quarter 2011 Multifamily Review & Outlook.

Investor appetite for newer institutional-grade product in high-barrier coastal markets is driving sales volume in recent quarters, unlike 2008 and 2009, when larger transactions were difficult to finance and the limited pool of mostly local investors opted for smaller properties in suburban locations, explained CoStar Senior Real Estate Strategist Michael Cohen, who co-presented the outlook with White.

REITs and private equity firms were the dominant net buyers of multifamily property in the first quarter. REITs purchased a total of $515 million in the quarter, with $130 million in net purchases after subtracting dispositions. Private equity player netted $117 million in sales, an amount expected rise into 2012. Institutions were the largest apartment sellers, disposing of a net $354 million in assets.

Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles logged the highest year-to-date sales volume at $900 million, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area ($600 million), Phoenix ($500 million) and Long Island ($400 million). The top five multifamily markets accounted for $3.3 billion, about 35% of the $9.4 billion in total sales volume. Collectively, those top markets saw a 15% year-over-year increase in the first quarter.

"Core investors are still very interested in paying up for stability and low volatility," Cohen said. "Pricing has been strong in D.C., but it still took the top spot for multifamily investment dollars."

Distressed transactions, including REO sales, deeds in lieu of foreclosure and properties with high vacancy and/or deferred maintenance costs, accounted for about 21% of all multifamily sales volume in the first quarter. While still quite high, the percentage of distressed deals declined 5% from the previous quarter, however, and CoStar expects distress levels to slowly drift down as fundamentals continue to improve.

In housing-exposed markets like Tucson, AZ, Fresno, CA, Jacksonville, Las Vegas and Atlanta, distressed trades exceeded 60% of all transactions. Supply constrained markets like Boston, Marin/Sonoma counties, CA; San Diego, Northern New Jersey, Portland, Washington, D.C. and San Jose, CA showed distressed levels of 20% or less.

OCCUPANCY, RENTS RISE EVEN AS ABSORPTION SLOWS

While the drop in the homeownership rate has led to higher absorption of apartments over the last five quarters, the pace has slowed from last year’s 167,000 units absorbed, which was the strongest level of demand since 2005. The last two quarters have seen demand of 19,000 and 23,000 units, respectively.

CoStar forecasts total supply additions of just 27,000 units in the 54 largest markets in 2011, just one-third of the pre-recession average between 2003 and 2008. However, CoStar expects to see occupancy gains in 49 out of the 54 metros over the next three quarters, led by San Antonio, Houston, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, Orlando and Portland. Markets such as Richmond, VA, Norfolk, VA, Seattle, Cincinnati and St. Louis will see modest increases in vacancy.

The limited supply of Class A and B properties continues to generate the most demand, resulting in fewer rent concessions a strong effective rent growth in 2011.

Three of the five top markets for rent growth in 2011 are in the supply constrained San Francisco Bay Area, led San Francisco (7.3%) and San Jose (7%). The East Bay, Honolulu and Boston round out the top five, followed closely by Phoenix, Raleigh, Washington, Baltimore and Denver.

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