WASHINGTON, DC-For the first time since the summer of 2009, the four indexes in the National Multi Housing Council‘s quarterly survey of apartment market conditions showed a general retreat from the previous quarter. In separate but related news, apartment data firm Axiometrics on Monday reported that national effective rent growth continued moderating in September, although occupancy rates held steady.

All four market conditions indexes—those measuring market tightness, sales volume, equity financing and debt financing—came in below the break-even level of 50, the first time this has occurred since July ’09, the NMHC reported. “After four years of almost continuous improvement across all indicators, apartment markets have taken a small step back,” says Mark Obrinsky, the council’s Washington, DC-based VP of research and chief economist. “Conditions cannot continue to improve indefinitely and new development is at least somewhat constrained by available capital—though more on the equity than the debt side.”

That being said, Obrinsky points out that both the market tightness and sales volume indexes are “within hailing distance” of the break-even level, while the debt financing index rose—from 21 in Q2 to 41 in Q3—despite an increase in interest rates. “This bodes well for the apartment industry going forward.”

Conversely, the response for equity financing on multifamily projects has not changed appreciably for 10 consecutive quarters. As in prior quarters, the most common response among survey respondents was that equity finance conditions were unchanged from three months ago. Twenty-seven percent of respondents viewed conditions as less available, while only 5% viewed equity financing as more available.

Dallas-based Axiometrics reported that annual effective rent growth nationwide slowed from 3.17% in August to 2.99% in September. By contrast, a year ago the growth rate measured 3.63%, and it has slowed in nine of the last 12 months, with increases seen only this past November and in May and June of this year.

“The year leading up to the peak in mid-2011 was incredibly strong, with the apartment market moving from terrible to terrific in the blink of an eye,” says Jay Denton, VP of research at Axiometrics. “Since then, it has been in a period of moderating rent growth.”

At present, Denton says, the market is “somewhere between the two extremes, depending on the particular area, and by historical standards is still strong. It is simply not faring as well compared to the very strong results of the recent past.”

Notwithstanding a slowdown overall, 17 of the top 88 metropolitan statistical areas reported annual growth of greater than 5% in September. California and Florida continue to dominate for effective rent growth, comprising seven of the top 10 performing MSAs.

Among the MSAs with annual effective growth of greater than 5% in September were Oakland, up 9.04%; San Francisco, up 7.39%; Seattle, 6.95%; and Boulder, CO, 5.78%. At the other end of the spectrum, Washington, DC ranked as the second weakest MSA out of 88 measured, with an annual growth rate of negative 1.50%. Other MSAs with negative growth included Little Rock, AR (-2.28%); Bethesda, MD (-0.17%); and Philadelphia (-0.23%).

Nationally, the occupancy rate held steady at 94.9% in September, up 28 basis points year over year, according to Axiometrics, and up 77 bps from September 2011. Currently, 54 of the top 88 MSAs have an average occupancy rate greater than 95%.