Trends in the Rental Living Sector
November 3, 2023
As an emerging sector, with 95% of projects still in development, there is a lot to learn about trends in the rental living sector.
According to Savills’ recent report ‘UK Build to Rent Market Update Q2 2023,’ the fundamentals of the sector remain strong and are set to continue to attract investment despite a subdued Q1. Q2 2023 has seen 18 deals transacting, and a record-breaking figure of £1.26bn deployed.
To interrogate the sector further, Baulogic and VervLife collaborated to gather BTR, single family and co-living industry experts from different areas of expertise, from operators to funders, developers to estate agents to share insights on this emerging sector.
With our group of guests, we explored the state of the market, lessons learned, how technology and data can play a role to help the market, and thoughts on the future of the sector.
James Barlow, UK Student Investment & Development, Savills
Stephen Chard, CEO, Baulogic
Harry Manley, Head of Planning, Halcyon
Chris Martin, Head of BTR, Utopi
Isaac Jamieson, Development, Strategy & Finance, Knight Frank
Lesley Roberts, Director of BTR, Godwin Developments
Neil Robinson, Director, Baulogic
Chair: Katherine Rose, Managing Director, VervLife
State of the market – uncertainty is the only certainty
Unsurprisingly our guests commenced discussions by acknowledging the uncertainty in the property market over the last year and recognised that the industry does not respond well to these conditions. However, despite the broad range of challenges and even with a recent dip in investment, the rental living sector is still growing.
A hot topic at the recent Labour conference, the archaic planning system is a major issue inhibiting innovation and delivery of new schemes, particularly for residential products like co-living.
“Co-living will always be a challenge for planners because it bends several fundamental planning rules around residential unit sizes and the way buildings operate. The challenging planning system is an issue for the market right now.” – Harry Manley, Halcyon
This has also been borne out by a reduction in planning applications seen in the co-living space which, according to Savills research, has decreased from 5,000-7,000 per year from 2000 to 2022, to only 3,000 this year.
Opportunities in the regions
In London, the regulation and expectations from GLA around affordable housing is a hindrance, with the GLA no longer the advocate of regeneration that it was in previous years.
A lot of residential developers are pushing out to the regions where there are more opportunities, although still beholden to local politics and issues with affordability.
Education on co-living
“In the northern regions planning discussions are underway about room sizes and 37 square metres has been mentioned for co-living, so there is further education needed there. But overall, we will see ripple effect out to regions with co-living and single-family housing.” – Katherine Rose, VervLife
More people are beginning to understand what co-living is but there is an existing negative preconception that arose post-pandemic that the business model no longer works because no one wants to live in small studios anymore. However, the evidence shows that residents would much rather live in a big community building that is well managed and with access to services, than a house share where they don’t get on with other residents. Education around this is key.
The challenges throughout the real estate industry are making a lot of developments unviable and many residential schemes are looking at whether student or co-living would be a better option.
“Having done options analysis of multiple co-living schemes, it is important to try and define the target tenant pool. Whether down in Lewisham or up in Hackney, is the market there and where is suitable?” – James Barlow, Savills
There are similar issues with rents and affordability in the regions. In Sheffield for example, where the accommodation is not so expensive, the schemes must be certain they are viable.
“Housebuilders have difficulty in accepting large discounts as they too have profit margins and share prices to achieve; however, the market is reshaping. Debt, build costs and profit margins on every part of the property equation must be recut to get deals done. If one part of the deal chain doesn’t play their part, then it doesn’t work.” – Lesley Roberts, Godwin Developments
Also on the investment side, investors are reluctant to go first with a deal, particularly in an uncertain market. There is some first mover advantage, but now everyone is looking for hard evidence of how to place the right values.
However, with SFH there is huge appetite there because it is quite a lot more de-risked than for urban conurbations.
Changes in legislation
When discussing a potential shift towards office conversions or repurposing smaller schemes in city centres because they are less costly and quicker to deliver, the group did not necessarily see this happening unless there is a strong sustainability agenda or heritage element. Not only are there unknown risks in such developments but the changes to building legislation are problematic, namely second staircases and fire safety, amongst others. There are also doubts around the government’s ability to put in place the inspection infrastructure for such legislation.
Second staircase legislation is seen as a massive issue and is driving option analysis of different schemes and uses. It is not certain how existing single staircase developments will be valued in the market and what impact it will likely have on trading assets, future schemes and the cost of building in a second staircase and or having them retrofitted.
Lessons learned – technology in building
The first generation BTR developments are beginning to have issues as they have no technology installed and therefore have no view of what is happening inside the buildings. They are now asking how they can retrofit tech to automate the data collection for ESG reporting as well as operational efficiencies. This is particularly the case over the last six months, because now there is some potential interest in transactions whereas there was none before.
“There is definitely a concern that if operators don’t have some sort of ESG reporting around those assets then they might be stranded, it will affect their value” – Chris Martin, Utopi
Co-living projects are involving tech earlier at the design and build stage and there is great interest in how this will work. If units are individually metered, then operators can introduce phased policies where if residents exceed an allowance, then there will be additional charges. But accurate data is essential and there are challenges with cluster set-ups and shared spaces.
Whereas with BTR there is demand for data for ESG reporting, with student developments there is more interest in tech helping with operational efficiency fuelled by utility price increases. Utopi has retrofitted tech in 5,000 student beds in last three months, with operators
trying to get some visibility because of all-inclusive rents.
With student developments there are opportunities to involve residents and celebrate the green champions as well as addressing those abusing the system. Even in a building of 300 students, it is great for individuals to feel they can have a direct impact on energy usage and feel positive about it.
“It is possible to incentivise a whole building and create campaigns. For example, with Novel the goal was to bring the average temperature down by two degrees over the space of a month – and if successful all students get free pizza and beer.” – Chris Martin, Utopi
“The best way to make change is to create advocates, and if tech can help enable that for student, BTR and co-living, then surely that’s a good thing. The tech is integral, not just for the consumer experience but also the funders on the other side.” – Lesley Roberts, Godwin Developments
Lessons learned – technology in buildings
Investors and tech
Investors want tech in buildings because they need the data, the green credentials and it attracts the green pound. It also offsets operational efficiencies and gives operators the tools to track energy. The reporting side of tech has enormous potential, otherwise it is labour intensive and time consuming to collect data into huge spreadsheets. The data must be reliable because it proves the investor’s credentials and that they are achieving what they set out to do.
Consumers and tech
Consumers have an expectation that saving energy should be easy and they want to support it.
“If we can give consumers the tools to save energy then that’s a natural progression towards improvement and a way to start turning this climate issue around.” – Lesley Roberts, Godwin Developments
What are tenants interested in?
Sense of community
“Our Get Living research, based on East Village, found that BTR residents say they have a greater sense of belonging within their schemes – and this is what they are looking for. Therefore, we look at how can we use events, social interactions within the development to drive this.” – Isaac Jamieson, Knight Frank
While rather less prevalent in student accommodation as they tend to stay for just one year, with other schemes it is thought to be important to be part of community to be invested long-term and remain there. Regarding SFH, creating a community can sometimes be overengineered and, especially in British culture, only natural touchpoints are needed for people to meet. For example, playgrounds and parks space where dogs are walked.
It is possible to facilitate more connection, for example with bike fixing arrangements, book clubs, running clubs. What is appropriate often depends on residents’ stage of life. However, tech is the enabler – residents can easily find the prompts, book in and then the connections are made.
Get the basics right
Good service and communication are key. Responsive and timely communication is often the best way to keep residents happy.
Smart home tech
As the next generation comes through, those that have grown up with technology will expect to have smart home technologies and greater control. Most popular features are heating, lighting, security and now blinds for solar gain, to keep the heat in the winter and heat out in the summer.
“Smart tech also enables messages to get out to all residents fast. ‘If you have a connected community, you can get a message out very quickly. We know communication is a struggle for operators, getting a message to all residents and tenants is challenging and time consuming.” – Stephen Chard, Baulogic
“It is amazing how fast this has changed – the convenience and the connectivity. Ten years ago, there would be a sign in the porter’s lodge saying the lift is out, now you have a touch screen in your house which is mirrored on your phone and you can find out instantly.” – Neil Robinson, Baulogic
Future evolution of smart home tech is likely to involve aggregation and integration with external companies. For example, with dynamic energy tariffs coming down the track it would be great for smart home control to automatically use energy when it is cheaper and avoid expensive periods. All the systems must work together otherwise they will be less effective.
There is a question around whether renters or investors will drive smart tech into buildings. For some developers it gives them an edge, a USP and will help with retention. For renters, it is valuable to be able to live your life in a more managed and convenient way.
For developers with concerns about obsolescence, wired smart home tech uses a standard global protocol. While the end devices or sources of heating may evolve, the wiring and software behind a system like Baulogic endures.
A big thank you to our attendees for a brilliant discussion, wonderfully chaired by VervLife’s Katherine Rose.
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