Our Thoughts
Tue, 25/06/2024 - 12:00
· 9 min read

GRI Club Interview: Funding Targeting the Living Sector

Ahead of his appearance at GRI Beds Europe 2024 on June 27th in London, Andrew Screen, our Head of Residential Capital Markets sat down with GRI Club’s Helen Richards to give his take on the outlook for the living sector. 

“A lot of money is targeting the living sector,” Andrew Screen emphasised during an exclusive interview with GRI Club. Head of Residential Capital Markets at BNP Paribas Real Estate UK, Andrew continued to describe the trend he is witnessing of funds raising new capital or  increasing capital allocations into the living sector. “They recognise that this is an inflation linked asset class that is in demand due to the huge accommodation demand compared to limited supply,” he explained.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, interest rate hikes, and soaring inflation descending on Europe over the past years, real estate’s reputation as a stable and inflation-resistant investment has been increasingly scrutinised. Amid this scenario characterised by caution and uncertainty, the persistent supply-demand imbalance found in residential markets across the continent has brought the sector into the spotlight among investors.

Hesitancy prevails however, and in this exclusive interview, Andrew describes the current  investment stagnation within the living sectors and investor sentiments as they await the trigger to kick start transaction momentum, as well as the preferred investment sectors.

Andrew will be co-chairing the ‘Fundraising for BTR’ discussion session at the upcoming GRI Beds Europe 2024, in London on June 27th. Find out more here.

 

The Current Scenario

“There's a significant lack of residential supply in the UK and a huge demand for accommodation, resulting in increasing rental prices, however, this also makes the sector attractive to investors, providing rentals are affordable. We have increasing investment targeting the sector, and that money has been increasing over the last two to three years.

There has also been pricing uncertainty as we saw yields shift outwards across other real estate sectors, and investors expected living sector yields to move out as well. While they have moved a little, it hasn’t been as significant as in the other sectors.

Unfortunately, over the past three years we have also had increases in construction costs and interest rates making it more difficult for developers to fund their schemes which resulted in an investment stagnation last year. Investors were seeking higher yields/returns due to economic uncertainty and hence offering lower prices, while developers needed to accommodate higher construction and interest costs.

Fortunately, there is a strong supply of debt funding available for development and stabilised assets albeit at higher interest rates. So, we have a good supply of debt and investor funding, however there is not a lot of certainty in the market.”

 

Waiting for the Trigger

“This year the investment sentiment is very positive going forward, but everybody's waiting for the trigger. In my view there are four key triggers:
 

  • Political Certainty: With a focus on stimulating residential development and no significant changes in regulations, an election outcome will provide certainty.
  • Economic Certainty: A reduction in interest rates.
  • Pricing Certainty: Commencement of transactions will provide pricing certainty. Demand for investment exceeds the supply of suitable opportunities.
  • A Large Portfolio Transaction: A first mover.

I am seeing a tsunami of investment and debt funding targeting the living sector, primarily international funding dominated by the US, Asia and the Middle East. However, we are also seeing new entrants from the Nordics and Australia. These investors are targeting development (build to core), value add, and stabilised stock, however their key target is for programmatic development platforms where they can allocate large investment tranches.

The supply of suitable residential development opportunities is not increasing substantially, however investment demand is. With this massive amount of money looking to invest in the sector, my view is that not everybody's going to get a deal. That might sound very blasé to say, but there's only so many suitable development sites with imminent planning permission available in London and key regional locations, which will ultimately lead to tightening yields in the short to medium term.

We have been speaking to many investors over the last 3 months who are looking for investment opportunities and have significant funds allocated to the living sector and intend to invest in the second half of this year. Most investors see this year as very positive and so do I.”
 

PBSA Sector Strength

“In terms of sectors, student accommodation will outweigh any of the other living sectors in terms of actual investment transactions over the next year. This year we've seen even more investors targeting PBSA in particular.

The yields are higher compared to the other living sectors, which means they're more accretive to debt funding even with high interest rates. PBSA is also an established asset class and there's more stock to be traded compared to BTR in the UK. It's a stabilised asset class; everybody knows how it works and it has a longer track record compared to BTR, single-family housing, or co-living for instance. If you want to move in early, PBSA is where the opportunity is.

PBSA investor demand is largely down to whether it's a Russell Group or STEM university, because that's where the attraction is. The stronger the university, the stronger the investor demand is. Those same universities are targeting international students because they pay more for their courses, and property developers are also targeting international student locations.

Property developers need about £225 a week for brand new PBSA developments to stack up financially. International students can typically afford over £250 per person per week, while UK students can only afford about £150. This is what I call the bifurcation of student accommodation.

Does that mean that we’ll see more demand in the future for HMOs (house in multiple occupation), because local students will go into HMOs rather than PBSA? Or does it mean that maintenance grants will increase and local students will have more money to live in brand new PBSA?”

 

Office to Residential Conversion

“I am super excited about office to residential conversion, particularly in London in key locations close to tube stations or retail. I looked at about three or four office buildings last year - all old 70s or 80s office buildings which are perfect for conversion.

These buildings are long; they're not deep like most modern buildings are today. They’re narrow which means you can put a corridor down the middle and have flats on either side. They normally have two fire escape staircases, one on either side, and lots of lifts in the middle, which is ideal. 

There is little benefit in demolishing these buildings and building from scratch, as local authorities will seldom permit a significant increase in height or the demolition, and there is a real carbon benefit. Prime locations that can accommodate more than 200 residential units (Student, Co-Living, and Build to Rent) are in high demand from developers and investors.

In terms of conversion, I am talking about a full strip back to the core, taking the building right back to concrete, ripping out all the mechanics and electrics and then refitting it from scratch. It's not super cheap; it may even be about the same cost to build, because you've got to work around the existing structure.”
 

“I don't think the window of opportunity will be open for long, maybe it will be just a couple of years before those sites are all bought up in those key locations, primarily in London Zone 1 and Zone 2. This opportunity may also extend to other key regional cities where there is a high demand for residential accommodation in the city centres.

The challenges of office to residential conversions are that the flats need to be accommodated within an existing concrete structure and there will always be columns or walls that are in the wrong place. Conversions therefore often lend themselves better to student living and co-living than they do BTR, where student and co-living flats are smaller and can be of an irregular shape/layout, while the BTR tenant expects a perfect flat layout.”

 

ESG

“It's quite simple; if you are not ESG aware or ESG literate, you are going to have a major problem in funding your development or property in the future.

There are two distinctions, one is Domestic Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES) / Energy Performance Certificates (EPC), and the other is ESG. EPCs are essential because you will not be able to find investment if your residential development does not achieve an EPC A or B, and you may be penalised if it is below C.

A lot of ESG is aspirational at the moment but the whole sector is moving to achieve good ESG credentials. ESG is certainly high on investment funds’ and bank’s agendas, and developers will need to provide a comprehensive business plan for ESG certification or accreditation for developments. 

The actual distinction of what is ESG fully compliant has yet to be determined. Is it better to have photovoltaic cells on my roof or triple glazing, or do I need both? Do I need electricity monitoring, temperature and motion sensors? Do I need air source heat pumps or ground source heat pumps?

There's also a balance between excellence in ESG and rental payments. Would you pay 50% more for your housing rental if you knew the building was fully ESG compliant and EPC A, or would you rather pay 20% more for sustainable heating and save 20% on your electricity?”
 

Future Proofing Buildings

“Everybody thinks that developers know what to build for the next fifty years. Fifty years ago there were no computers on people's desks, and buildings were designed differently because they didn't need computer ducting.

Housing seldom had central heating fifty years ago and heating was by solid fuel burned on an open fire. In the last 50 years buildings and the way we live has substantially changed.

Developers, just three years ago, were having to rip up some of their external paving to put in electric charging points, because electric charging points weren’t even considered five years earlier when those buildings were designed.

So what do the next fifty years hold? Can we future-proof our buildings for fifty years? I would say the answer is probably not, but we can at best design for the next ten or fifteen years and try to get it right.

It's a big challenge for any developer to try and accommodate everything, but ESG is all in the right direction. It's important that we consider our energy consumption, where that energy is coming from, what it's doing to the planet, and how we can build better, because that's just being smart.”
 

Interview originally published by GRI Club on 11th June 2024.

GRI Club Interview: Funding Targeting the Living Sector