Things aren’t looking so great for property fundamentals at some of the largest US apartment REITs. In most markets, rising layoffs and the stagnant economy led to a reduced demand for multifamily units in most markets across the country, found Bank of America in its most recent property manager survey.
The locally based firm polled more than 2,800 property and leasing managers at communities in 13 of the largest multifamily markets in the country to find trends in market conditions. The survey indices are measured on a scale in which a score below 50 means conditions are poor or have gotten worse, while a score above 50 indicates positive or improving trends.
In November, demand indicators such as traffic and leasing levels were some of the worst so far this year. Of those polled, 59% said traffic and leasing activity was below expectations for what was normal at this time of year, up 5% from last year. Conversely, 8.6% said they exceeded expectations. BofA’s traffic index declined 2.5 points from October to 27.8, marking the lowest score year to date. Meanwhile, the monthly traffic and leasing index fell from 31 in October to 28.6 in November. In fact, San Francisco was the only market in which survey participants saw increased traffic, though this city is still showing signs of growing weakness.
Reduced traffic led many landlords to reduce rents and offer more concessions, but that still didn’t help bump up occupancy, according to those polled. The rent index fell from 43.4 in October to 35.3 in November, while the occupancy index dropped 5.4 points over the month to 33.2. This survey was also the first month in which the rental index hit the 30s, with 59% of participants reporting flat rates month-to-month, and 35% saying they reduced rates in November, up from 29% the prior month.
Rent index scores declined across 10 major markets, compared to eight in October, while Atlanta, Charlotte and Houston held steady with scores of 50. Markets that were once strong, such as Seattle and San Francisco, exhibited performance similar to weaker markets such as Las Vegas and Orange County, CA.
“The weak results from November were similar to October regarding occupancy, and recent comments from management on conference calls indicated that there is an increasing propensity to double up or share smaller apartments,” comments Dustin Pizzo, an analyst with BofA.
As concessions become the norm, landlords are being more aggressive. More than half of property managers said they increased the amount of concessions they are offering over the prior month. The incentive index fell nearly 10 points to 25.5, marking the fifth month in a row below 50. Scores were in the teens in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix, while Dallas was the only city that was able to hold steady on or reduce incentives. “Managers will continue to struggle with finding a balance between rental rates and occupancy,” says Pizzo.
One of the biggest factors weighing heavily on apartments is the competition from the single-family overhang.
Whereas construction of rental apartments is minimal—about 67% of those polled said there is none or only a little competition from new multifamily projects—the excess supply in the for-sale market is proving to be a formidable force. Roughly 60% of survey participants said these units pose some or significant competition. The single-family competition index rose 4.9 points to 43.1 in November.
For the next four to six months, BofA is cautious on apartment REITs, since the negative factors seem to outweigh the positives given the weak economy, rising unemployment and uncertainty over the future. The firm favors companies with “niche defensive plays,” such as Essex Property Trust, and “healthy balance sheets and limited near-term development risk,” as is the case with Equity Residential.