BTR Opinions Build to Rent (BTR)

Build to Rent – resilience in the face of Covid

CBRE explores how Covid-19 has impacted Build to Rent occupancy levels and rent collection - and looks ahead at the investment market outlook.

By Sara Darweish, Associate Director, Residential Valuation, CBRE

Rewind to a pre-Covid era. It was a strong start for the Build to Rent sector, as the UK’s nascent multifamily housing sector is known, with over £1bn of capital committed in Q1 2020 – the highest levels of investment since our records began. The economic backdrop was buoyant as confidence was returning to the market after Brexit and general election uncertainty. Then, the pandemic struck, and we were plunged into lockdown. The market came to a standstill.

Sara Darweish, Associate Director, Residential Valuation, CBRE

Although we won’t know the full story until the wider economic impact unfolds, Build to Rent has proved to be one of the most resilient asset classes, underpinned by strong fundamentals. There’s still a chronic housing shortage, there’s still a growing population, and even during a pandemic, people still need to rent.

Testament to the sector’s strength is reinforced as ‘institutional-grade Build to Rent properties’ became one of the first asset classes to have the Market Uncertainty Clause lifted for valuations. Investment activity has returned, albeit at lower levels for now. 

CBRE residential valuation has access to a wealth of Build to Rent data, and we have detailed insight into what is happening on the ground. This article will explore how Covid-19 has impacted rent collection and occupancy levels and look ahead to the investment market outlook.

Rent Collection

It has been widely reported that rent collection has remained robust, ranging from 92% to 98% of rent demanded for May. Operators reacted swiftly, establishing hardship processes and worked closely with residents. We’ve seen a range of strategies including:

  • Rent deferments – a % of rent deferred for an agreed period of time, to be paid back at a later date. Some investors are viewing deferred income as risky, however, there are only a small percentage of residents deferring a proportion of rent currently.
  • Incentives on renewals and new lettings – ranging from one to four weeks rent free period.
  • Renewal strategies – some operators have not pursued uplifts at renewals or not implemented mechanisms provided for in the lease.
  • Good will gestures – in some cases where amenity spaces have closed, a rebate has been given to residents.

There is clearly a fine balance between maximising and sustaining income and occupancy, but the underlying theme has been investors adopting a flexible approach and maintaining close communication with residents in order to achieve this. 

Rental growth 

We’ve seen rental levels remain broadly stable as at Q2 2020. However, there will no doubt be downward pressure on rents considering the wider economic outlook going forward. Ability for operators to negotiate at renewal may also be diminished, and incentives / rent free periods offered to maintain occupancy will also reduce headline rents.

CBRE’s current house forecasts suggest rents may fall by up to 2% in 2020, but then return to growth in 2021, with increases of between 2% to 4% thereafter.

Rents – UK annual change (source: CBRE Residential Research):

  • 2020: -2% to 0%
  • 2021: 0% to 2%
  • 2022: 2% to 4%

Occupancy Levels

For stabilised assets, we’ve seen a slight dip in occupancy levels at Q2, with void rates edging up.

Generally the drop-in occupancy can be attributed to lockdown restrictions preventing people from moving, with rental enquiries significantly down, c.40% during this period. Schemes with a large exposure to the student market were more severely impacted, with students immediately vacating.

But with restrictions easing, demand is picking up and we saw an initial surge from pent up demand. Although stamp duty changes may provide a boost to the sales market, there are still far less mortgage products available and with lower LTV’s and bigger deposits required, first time buyers may continue to rent. 

Implications

From a valuation perspective, rent collection and occupancy levels will have direct impact on Net Operating Income (NOI). Going forward, this will largely be dictated by the wider economic environment and how deep and prolonged the recession will be. Currently we don’t know the extent to which strong rent collection levels are propped up by the furlough scheme, and how the risk of redundancies and lower employment will impact income affordability and demand for Build to Rent.

Investment Outlook

Despite economic uncertainty, the investment outlook remains positive. While Q2 investment volumes were significantly down year on year by c. 90% to £83m, deals that have progressed have seen pricing generally in line with pre-Covid expectations. As such, CBRE published the Residential Investment Q2 MarketView in which residential investment yields remain unchanged.

Although some investors are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach, others haven’t been deterred and are actively seeking opportunities. Those pursuing deals are being more cautious and taking every step to mitigate risk throughout the process. Due diligence is more in depth and is taking longer due to Covid restrictions, which has contributed to deals being delayed.

Overall, investor appetite remains strong and it’s encouraging that there were over £1.4bn of deals under offer at the end of Q2. There are signs of increasing activity in the market and the sector is poised to make a rebound in the second half of the year.

We’re likely to see a flight to quality as investors look to diversify portfolios and shift allocation away from other asset classes into Build to Rent, which has proven to be less risky and offer more stable income streams during a downturn.

Conclusion

With the pandemic being far from over and the threat of a second wave, Build to Rent is clearly not out of the woods yet. However, the initial signs are encouraging with such strong rent collection levels – and the sector is likely to show continued resilience in the face of economic uncertainty and continue to outperform other asset classes. There’s a sense of cautious optimism in the sector and Build to Rent remains a very attractive proposition for investors, now more so than ever.

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