Diving into the rental residential market

A significant amount of wealth has been directed into the rental residential market in recent years, especially in times of zero interest rates. Investor interest has also accelerated the construction of new rental apartment properties, and residential properties saw the most significant transaction volumes in the real estate sector in 2021–2022. The same trend continued in the first half of 2023 as residential properties accounted for 40% of the largest total volume in the real estate sector.

“More than 47,000 new apartments were started in 2021 and more than 38,000 in the following year. According to the latest estimates, the number of housing starts is projected to fall below 20,000 this year, so it may even fall below the level of the financial crisis. According to VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, the construction of approximately 35,000 apartments should begin in Finland each year in order to meet long-term housing needs. Although the number of new apartments to be completed is still high this year, the number will decrease significantly in the coming years. If housing production falls short of the demand even for a couple of years, it will make a huge dent in the supply,” explains Retta’s Real Estate Analyst Anton Takkavuori.

Ruthless market

The extensive new construction in recent years has led to an increase in the supply of rental housing, especially in the Helsinki metropolitan area. The number of rental ads in the Oikotie online service increased by 20% in the second quarter of 2023 compared to the previous year.

“The increase in the supply of rental housing has both curbed the development of rents and increased vacancy rates. The growth in the number of vacant rental apartments has not been limited to the Helsinki metropolitan area alone – there has been an increase in all cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Landlords need to strike a balance between index increases for rents and the rising vacancy risk in a situation of abundant supply. Rent reviews should take into account both the submarket and the apartment,” says Takkavuori.

According to Statistics Finland, in the third quarter of 2023, the rents of non-subsidised dwellings increased by 0.5 % in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and by 2.0 % in the rest of Finland compared to last year. At the same time, there were plenty of rental apartments available.

“Since 2020, the development of rents in new lease agreements has been more positive in large cities outside the Helsinki Metropolitan Area than in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. Now, in the new market situation, the development of rents has been clearly weaker, especially when the development of maintenance costs is also taken into account. The development of rents will therefore be under clear upward pressure in the coming years, as rents have not reached the level of inflation,” estimates Takkavuori.

Recently, there has also been significant upward pressure in the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland, ARA’s rents as a result of increased maintenance and financing costs. Takkavuori thinks that the increase in costs must, at least to some extent, be passed on to the tenants.

“It’s possible that the increase in ARA rents will also lead to an upward pressure in non-subsidised rents, but it’s necessary to take into account the relatively low starting level of ARA rents compared to market rents. Therefore, an increase in ARA rents may not lead directly to an increase in rents in the rest of the market. In the spring 2023 rental statistics, market rents in Helsinki were 50% more expensive than ARA rents, 32% more expensive in Espoo and 28% more expensive in Vantaa,” says Takkavuori.

After the party

In July 2023, prices of old units in housing companies in the six largest cities in Finland fell by 8.8% compared to 2022. Outside of the large cities, prices fell by 6.2%. In the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, prices fell by up to 10.3% year-on-year in July. According to Takkavuori, the declining housing price development in large cities is mainly explained by investors being scared and brisk construction.

“In recent years, tens of thousands of new rental apartments have been completed in large cities. According to KTI, a record 7,400 rental apartments are expected to be completed in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area during the current year, which is approximately 30% more than in the previous year. However, the number of new rental apartments starts has now begun to decrease significantly. At the end of the second quarter of 2023, less than 8,300 rental apartments were under construction in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The number has decreased by more than 3,000 apartments in the last 12 months. In addition, only about 1,100 new rental apartments were started in the Helsinki metropolitan area in the first half of the year.”

Market growth drivers are still mainly in the positive

Nonetheless, the long-term value drivers of the rental apartment market are still firmly in place. In particular, the continuous migration to growth centres ensures an increase in the total demand for rental housing in these areas also in the future. A rapid return to the construction volumes of the early 2020s is not in sight, especially in housing construction. However, the continued urbanisation supports the recovery of housing construction.

“From January to July 2023, Finland’s population increased by 17,797 and, at the same time, migration returned to its pre-pandemic level. Those large cities with institutes of higher educations, their surrounding municipalities and individual provincial centres have shown the biggest appeal. Statistics Finland predicts that the Helsinki Metropolitan Area will grow by more than 200,000 new residents by 2040,” says Takkavuori.

Nearly 80% of residents in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area live in households with no more than two people. According to VTT, the reduction in family size has had an even greater impact on the need for housing production in the last twenty years than migration. In addition, the number of small households is expected to continue growing.

“In the short term, increased borrowing costs for households will increase interest in renting an apartment. The growing demand for rental housing is also influenced by consumer confidence, which is being put to the test at the moment, and the rise in consumer prices. According to a Pellervo economic research PTT forecast, prices for rental housing are rising significantly less than for owner-occupied housing this year. More than half of the apartments in Turku, Tampere and Helsinki are rental apartments,” Takkavuori points out

Housing construction experiencing a hangover

Building permits were granted for 5,378 apartments in the second quarter of 2023, which was 62% less than a year earlier. The weak economic situation in housing construction may cause insufficient housing supply in relation to the need in the coming years.

“The increase in the need for housing production is caused by factors such as natural population growth, the growth of small households, immigration and young people becoming independent earlier on in life. For example, in the summer of 2023, the City of Helsinki raised its housing production target to 8,000 apartments per year despite the economic cycle. The abundant housing production planned for Helsinki enables population growth for its part,” says Takkavuori.

On the other hand, the decrease in the number of completed apartments will serve as a growth driver for rents in the medium term.

“If the level of housing construction remains low for a long time, it may create bottlenecks to population growth and the availability of workforce. The housing shortage may become a significant growth stopper in terms of population development. Therefore, it would be optimal to keep the housing production in large cities as flat as possible. The overall impact of declining housing construction depends on the duration of the depression in the construction industry,” estimates Takkavuori.

Long game compensates for short-term risks

Long-term investors still see the Finnish residential real estate sector as attractive and having strong fundamentals. Despite the uncertainty, the housing sector has attracted both domestic and foreign investors. This is also evidenced by the arrival of the US-based KKR in the Finnish housing rental market in the second quarter of 2023.

“Stable conditions and the transparency of the market are attracting foreign investors to Finland, and the share of foreign investors in the transaction volume of residential properties has been increasing. For example, the scarce regulation of the Finnish housing rental market is interesting to international investors. Finland also lacks the intricacies many investors try to avoid, such as rent regulation and rent ceilings,” says Takkavuori.

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