x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Prices force Londoners into rentals

The average price of a home in the UK capital has breached the £500,000 mark meaning for many in the city buying a house is beyond them. But the need for housing offers an opportunity to big institutional investors.

Signs advertising properties for rent in Roehampton, London. Simon Dawson / Bloomberg News
Signs advertising properties for rent in Roehampton, London. Simon Dawson / Bloomberg News

The "renty-something" generation is how they could be dubbed.

Londoners are increasingly forced to rent a home, whether they like it or not, after the UK capital's average home price passed the £500,000 (Dh2.7 million) mark in May, according to the UK's Rightmove property website, to a record £509,000.

Shelter, the United Kingdom's main housing charity, says it will now take a single person living in London up to 30 years before they can afford to buy their own home - creating a sector of the population referred to as "Generation Rent'.

The UK is a nation of homeowners - since the 1980s, the predominant cultural movement has been home-buying and owner-occupation.

Across the country more than two thirds of residents live in a home they own but in London that proportion has been falling steadily for a number of years, down to 50.7 per cent, according to the last government survey. More than 25 per cent of Londoners now live in privately rented accommodation, compared with 17 per cent on average in the whole of England. Every year another 266,000 families become renters, whether they choose to or not.

Savills, a property surveying firm, says the number of private-rented households will rise by a further 1.1 million or 23 per cent in the next five years.

At the same time, the total amount of rent paid annually will accelerate from £48 billion to £70bn.

Lucian Cook, the director of residential research at Savills, says the number of renters in the 21 to 35 years age group has increased by 33 per cent in the past decade, while renters among the older generation 33 to 45 - known as the "Treadmill Generation" - have also increased, by 17 per cent, in the past decade.

It looks like the way British people choose to occupy their homes is changing fundamentally and is becoming more like Germany, where more people rent for longer.

The implication is if people are renting until they are in their 30s - and maybe have a couple of children - the first property they buy is going to be a three-bedroom house, rather than a one or two-bedroom flat as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We are entering a different phase of our housing market, with owner-occupation having reached maturity," says Mr Cook. "At the end of the day, this is now the reality for many people. The question is how do you deal with that issue? [And] the fact that for many renters there is a lack of choice, lack of quality, rogue landlords and a risk that rents get pushed up to maximum affordability.

"This shift is not a flash in the pan," he adds.

The growth in the rentals market comes despite data showing British mortgage approvals for house purchases rose in May to the highest level since December 2009, Bank of England (BoE) data showed yesterday. The BoE said mortgage approvals numbered 58,242 in May, up from 54,354 in April, Reuters reported. There is pressure from voters for politicians to address the UK's problematic housing market, which conveys great wealth on some lucky people, while making it almost impossible for others to afford a reasonable place to live in some parts of the country.

The government-commissioned Montague report tried to address the issue last year and recommended institutional investors such as insurance companies and pension funds could be suitable owners of property to rent.

To assist them, a £1bn buy-to-let programme was announced this spring that is designed to encourage the construction sector, which remains in the doldrums, to build suitable products that would appeal to institutions to invest in.

A month after the incentives were introduced, almost three quarters of the pot had been allocated to projects around the UK. However, market experts point out the money allocated is only a fraction of £3.5bn pledged by the government on April 1 to would-be homeowners, to help them buy homes and "help keep the dream of home-ownership alive". That scheme is due to come into effect in January and run for three years.

Savills suggests £200bn needs to be invested in the private rental sector - to provide all the new homes that will be needed. However, just a quarter of this will come from "buy-to-let" mortgage finance - a cottage industry that has grown into a huge trend, as wealthier people purchase second homes and flats to supplement their pensions.

This is creating a major investment opportunity and institutions and property companies are finally starting to address it seriously. Nick Jopling, the chief executive of Grainger, a property company that owns residential property across the country, says this is perhaps the most exciting asset class in today's UK market.

"There is an imbalance between the high level of demand for good quality, professionally managed, purpose-built accommodation in the private rental space, and the limited product currently available in London - with all the indicators pointing to this mismatch growing further," he says.

"Demand for rental housing, supported by low mortgage availability, high capital values, immigration into the city both domestically and internationally for study and employment, and the shift of attitudes among the young away from the expectation of home ownership, is likely to remain high," he adds.

This is happening against a backdrop of a consistent shortfall in new housing construction over the past 20 years, which means that supply will struggle to keep up. The UK needs approximately 260,000 new homes to be built a year. Last year, just 100,000 were built.

Grainger has been in the vanguard of property companies investing in this space, by increasing its exposure to the London rental property market in recent months.

It signed a deal with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea last year to develop and later manage rental accommodation on two Kensington and Chelsea-owned sites. In January, Grainger also announced a joint venture with APG, Europe's largest pension fund asset manager, to create the £350m Grip unit trust, acquiring the assets of G:res, a London and south east England focused property fund Grainger has managed since its creation in 2005.

This was followed in February by the acquisition of Grainger's first build-to-rent scheme, through an agreement to purchase the 100-unit residential element of a major regeneration scheme in Barking town centre, in East London, being developed by Bouygues Development. The accommodation has been designed specifically for private rental use and, once the apartments are completed, Grainger will retain and manage them for rental income.

Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment, an arm of the Qatari wealth fund, and Delancey Estates, a British property company, have also emerged as two of the biggest players in this market. Two years ago they paid about £557m for the 2012 London Olympics athlete's village in a deal that included about 1,400 homes, most of which will be leased rather than sold.

But it is the prospect of pension funds and insurers owning homes to rent on an industrial scale that holds the greatest attraction to the politicians, particularly because the cash-strapped state cannot afford the sort of building programme that solved, for example, the UK's post-Second World War housing crisis.

The idea of these investors owning the homes of ordinary people is not new in the UK. In 1918 about 80 per cent of houses were privately rented and owned by institutions.

As private ownership increased, private renting declined and by 1950 institutions had all but bowed out. Social housing, with subsidised rents, gradually increased its market share, peaking at almost a third in 1979.

Adam Challis, the head of residential research at Jones Lang LaSalle, says "a lot more needs to be done to increase supply" to reverse the unaffordability of London property for young professionals. The good news is the sector should become more professional, offering higher quality and better service for renters.

"The institutions will offer a maturity of management which hasn't existed in the UK before," he says.

"People who are topping up their pension pot are not as focused on the needs of tenants as a customer. Institutions will do everything they can to hang on to good tenants and keep them happy."

So far, the emergence of institutional interest in the private rented sector has been a London story - because in the capital the strong house price growth has underwritten the risks for institutions. However, as the investors become more comfortable with the sector, Mr Challis expects they will look to the regional cities - Leeds, Bristol, Manchester for example - where higher yields can be achieved.

"The early movers are already looking outside London," he says.