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U.S. Now a Renters' Market

With apartment-vacancy rate at 30-year high, landlords cut prices 3% in 2009.

Apartment vacancies hit a 30-year high in the fourth quarter, and rents fell as landlords scrambled to retain existing tenants and attract new ones.

The vacancy rate ended the year at 8%, the highest level since Reis Inc., a New York research firm that tracks vacancies and rents in the top 79 U.S. markets, began its tally in 1980.

Rents fell 3% last year, according to Reis, led by declines in San Jose, Calif., Seattle, San Francisco and other cities that had brisk growth until the recession.

Gains in home sales have been driven by government stimulus, leading some to wonder if the nascent housing recovery needs federal assistance to sustain, Nick Timiraos reports.

In New York City, the vacancy rate improved by 0.1 percentage point for the second straight quarter, but around 60% of rental buildings dropped their rents in the fourth quarter from the previous quarter. Effective rents -- which include concessions such as one month of free rent -- fell 5.6% in New York last year, the worst since Reis began tracking the data in 1990.

Landlords now must entice tenants to renew leases. "We'll shampoo their carpets. We'll paint accent walls. We'll add Starbucks cards," said Richard Campo, chief executive of Camden Property Trust, a Houston-based real-estate investment trust that owns 63,000 units. He said the first half of 2010 should be "pretty ugly," but was optimistic the sector would pick up later in the year.

Few markets have been spared. During the fourth quarter, vacancies increased in 52 markets, while they improved in 17 and stayed flat in 10. Vacancies increased most sharply for the year in Tucson, Ariz.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Lexington, Ky.

Vacancies are tied to unemployment, because many would-be renters move in with family members or double up during a downturn. Apartments have been squeezed because younger workers, who are more likely to rent, have experienced the brunt of job losses during the downturn.

Landlords were also hit last year by competition from a wave of new supply that hit the market. The 120,000 units that came onto the market last year, including some busted condo projects that had to be converted to rentals, represented the most new construction since 2003, according to Reis.

Many of those developments had secured financing before credit markets seized up. The credit crunch has frozen most new development, which means that new apartment completions should fall by half in 2011. That's one potential silver lining for apartment owners: The limited new supply should give them the ability to boost rents quickly whenever job growth returns.

"If you are renting a place, now might be a good time to renegotiate that lease," said Victor Calanog, director of research for Reis, who added that the sector could see a recovery in the second half of the year, buoyed by either job growth or at least the perception that the economy was turning around.

Such oversupplied markets as Florida, Phoenix and Las Vegas are hurting, even though housing sales have picked up. "Landlords aren't benefiting because jobs aren't recovering," said Hessam Nadji, managing director at Marcus & Millichap, a real-estate firm.

Marcus & Millichap is to release a separate report on Friday that forecasts a further 2% to 3% drop in apartment rents over the next year, most of which will be concentrated over the next six months. The report forecasts Washington, D.C., will be the healthiest rental market in 2010 for the second straight year.

Government efforts to prop up the housing market also threaten the apartment sector by making it easier for some renters to buy homes. Some landlords have reported a slight uptick in renters moving out to buy homes. Around 13% of Camden Property's move-outs last summer left to buy homes, up from 11% at the beginning of the year. But that is still roughly half of the rate seen during the housing boom, when mortgage standards were much looser. "During the housing boom days, you had people who weren't qualified to rent but could buy a half-million-dollar home," said Alexander Goldfarb, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP.

Thanks to falling home prices and record low mortgage rates, it now costs less to own than it has in the past decade on a mortgage-payment-to-rent basis. But falling rents are expected to offset some of the recent improvement in affordability, making renting more attractive than owning in some markets.

Source: Financially Fit

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