Student accommodation in the UK is experiencing sound growth as investors see it as a viable and profitable property investment sector. What was once the domain of the institutional investor is now being marketed to individual investors with investment levels starting from around GBP45,000. Many smaller investors have entered the sector, but is it simply a ‘flavor of the month’ opportunity or will it be a sound medium term investment sector?
To answer that question we must first look at the underlying demand for student accommodation in the UK. A common concern among investors was whether the recent increase in tuition fees would reduce the number of applicants and universities would have unfilled vacancies. The good news (or bad news depending on your view point) is that the fee increase had minimal impact on applicants, which still exceeded the available places. For 2012 the total applications in the 18 – 20 age group were over 90,000 above the number of acceptances in 2011. These students still need somewhere to live and there has been no shortage of demand for well located, purpose built accommodation.
The ideal answer to the shortage of accommodation from a student’s point of view is for the universities to provide the accommodation at a subsidized rate. However, this is certainly not going to happen now or in the future. The government hasn’t got the political will let along the financial resources to fund such development. There would also be a public outcry, since overseas students would take many of the available spaces up.
The above means that the private sector has to step in and provide that accommodation. Whether we like it or not, today’s youth don’t want to live in Mrs. Smith’s back bedroom five miles from the university. They want to live within walking distance, close to their friends and in modern blocks with all the amenities including en-suites, common rooms etc. Whilst these places cost more than Mrs. Smith’s back bedroom, many parents can still afford to pay the figures being asked and this will continue indefinitely.
Of course, some locations will fare better than others over the long term. A few will be over developed which will put a strain on the rental yield as students have more choice and are in a stronger negotiating position with a landlord. However, places like Canterbury, Chester, York and Durham should not suffer from this problem, as the local councils will not allow over development to adversely impact their cities. Of course, some investors will be attracted to the major cities, but care should be taken in this regard. At the end of the day it is all about how many students are studying in the location, how much suitable accommodation is available and how much future development will the local council allow. If development is restricted and there is currently a substantial shortage of accommodation the prospects for income and capital growth should be sound.
The above is clearly demonstrated in the case of Chester. This is a historical, walled city dating back to the Roman times and the council will not allow over development as it seeks to main its heritage and tourist appeal. The University of Chester provides accommodation for 1,000 students, but there are over 16,000 studying in the city. The current shortage of suitable accommodation will remain for the foreseeable future.
Another concern of smaller investors is the ability to re-sell the unit in the future. The secondary market is certainly not as well developed as the general residential sector, but this is gradually changing. The sheer number of quality units that are being sold means that in the future financial advisers, local estate agents and web portals will be actively involved in the sector. Where people want to sell and others want to buy, advisers and agents will always put themselves in the middle and student accommodation will be no different.
One particular aspect of student accommodation that appeals to smaller investors is the rental guarantee offered by some developers. We have been developers ourselves and we are a little cynical about such guarantees. However, in the case of student accommodation, particularly in the better-suited locations, rental demand is so strong the guarantee has some validity. Some developers are offering a 9% net yield and even after some pruning by our ever-cautious team the net figure still comes out around 8% p.a.
In terms of capital growth, the sector will, in our opinion, lag behind prime central London apartments which has enormous international following. However, given its growing popularity both in the UK and overseas it should at least match, if not out-perform, the general residential sector. Student accommodation should be regarded as an income play and will appeal to those who are looking for an ongoing, secure and attractive rental income. Many investors feel that in times of uncertainty this is preferable to the vague prospects of capital growth in the general residential sector in the future. If you don’t want to buy in prime central London, they are probably right.