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Wall Street’s Big Landlords Are So Hungry for Houses They’re Building Them

Posted by Edda O'Brien on Friday, January 4th, 2019 at 10:09am.

 

Millennials aren’t the only ones having a hard time finding houses to buy. So is Wall Street.

shortage of houses in the entry-level price range where first-time buyers and big rental-home companies both shop is prompting some institutional landlords to start building new ones themselves.

These companies are racing to meet demand for rental homes from a wave of young families too saddled with student debt to buy, as well as from investors wagering that the suburban renter class that swelled after last decade’s housing crash is here to stay.

Acquiring newly constructed homes represents a sharp turn for institutional landlords such asAmerican Homes 4 Rent and Tricon American Homes. Those companies and others like them emerged as bargain hunters at the depths of the housing crisis, when they gobbled up foreclosed homes by the thousands for far less than it would cost to build new ones.

The idea then was to accumulate enough homes in specific cities to make maintenance efficient and rent them to families who wanted to maintain suburban lifestyles and keep their children in good schools, but who couldn’t buy because of beaten-down credit and meager savings.

Surging property values since the recession have made bargains on houses harder to find. Yet those higher home prices have also improved the outlook for the rental business by making homeownership more difficult for millions of millennials.

Agoura Hills, Calif.-based American Homes 4 Rent has been building houses throughout the Southeast to add to its pool of more than 52,000 rental homes across the country. Chief Executive David Singelyn told a recent gathering of rental investors that in some places the company can build houses for about the same price that it costs to buy existing ones.

By building houses, American Homes avoids sales commissions and renovation costs. It can outfit homes with its preferred fixtures and finishes at the onset, and charge higher rents than it can fetch for its older homes, Mr. Singelyn said.

“You’re also going to have a brand new asset that has much lower maintenance costs over probably the first 10 years,” he said.

Tricon American Homes, a unit of Toronto-based Tricon Capital Group Inc., started adding new homes to its stable last year and has hundreds more in the works. The company, which has about 17,000 U.S. rental homes, made a deal in the summer with a Texas pension fund and a Singaporean sovereign-wealth fund to go on a three-year, $2 billion homebuying binge. The group says it intends to acquire as many as 12,000 single-family properties.

Tricon has purchased new houses and lots from builders and agreed to take big chunks of subdivisions up front to help developers get projects off the ground. Kevin Baldridge, Tricon’s president, said the company recently agreed to buy an entire 135-home phase of a subdivision outside of Houston he likened to a “horizontal apartment community,” and is weighing whether to start building homes itself.

The build-to-rent strategy is more about adding rental income than finding homes that will rise in value, said Terry Chen, Tricon’s acquisitions chief. “What we’re really after is the durable cash flow,” he said.

Not all big rental investors like the idea of building rental homes.

At the same industry gathering last month in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Messrs. Singelyn and Baldridge touted their build-to-rent strategies, Invitation Homes Inc. co-founder Dallas Tanner said he would listen to pitches from builders but didn’t want the Dallas-based company—the country’s largest single-family landlord with more than 82,000 houses—to take on development risk or push too far from city centers to try to make the numbers work on new construction. “It’s just not what we’re focused on,” Mr. Tanner said.

Some smaller investors said they have recently been getting their hands on brand-new homes at significant discounts without having to lift a hammer. They said they do it by approaching home builders during the waning days of fiscal periods, when executives are eager to jettison inventory to hit quarterly sales targets.

Bruce McNeilage, whose Nashville, Tenn.-based Kinloch Partners LLC flips packages of occupied rental homes in the Southeast to larger investors, has augmented his own construction projects with homes he acquires from builders on the cheap. By paying cash, he said, he is able to close deals in a day or so, as opposed to the months it might take someone who has to secure a mortgage. That approach has enabled him to squeeze discounts of up to 15% from builders in recent weeks, he added.

He said he pays full price so public records don’t show a decline in neighborhood sales prices and reaps the discount after closing through rebates from the builder. He also agrees not to use yards signs to advertise rentals, to avoid raising hackles among the neighbors.

Mike Kalis, who used to work for a big home builder but now runs Marketplace Homes, a Livonia, Mich.-based seller and manager of rental houses, said investors have to approach developers delicately. When home prices crashed a decade ago speculators walked away from deals in droves, leaving builders holding unsold homes—many of which were scooped up on the cheap during the recession by early rental investors.

“You kind of have to do it very quietly where they don’t know that you’ve picked off 30 homes that you’re going to convert into rental,” Mr. Kalis said.

Write to Ryan Dezember at ryan.dezember@wsj.com

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