UK: What is 'PRS' or 'Build to Rent' & how can developers capitalise on this opportunity

In this article, one of our in-house residential design experts, Jeannette Veldkamp, discusses the different issues associated with Private Rented Sector (PRS) and Build-to-Rent housing in the UK, and at how developers can capitalise on this opportunity.

The Private Rented Sector (PRS) or Build to Rent sector in the UK has grown substantially in recent years and accounts for approximately 16.5% of all UK households. In ever-increasing numbers, investors are buying up properties for the purposes of 'buy-to-let' - benefitting both from value rises in their acquired assets (UK house price rises) and from rising rents. It is clear that PRS is here to stay and will grow significantly over the next few years. How can developers capitalise on this opportunity? What are the key issues you need to be aware of?

What are PRS and purpose Build-to-Rent developments?

In essence, new housing developments where all the properties are built for rent, not sale. Many believe that, in 15 or 20 years' time, more people will rent in the UK than own their homes. This is caused by a lack of affordable 'built-for-sale' housing stock.

Why has the Built for Sale housing market not kept up with the demand?

The promotion of home ownership in the 1980s, to the detriment of all other housing forms, is now the victim of its own success, with more people than ever trying to buy their own home. However, demand for housing has outstripped supply. In the UK, it is estimated that 240,000 new houses are needed per year to cater for demand, but on average we build only around half that number each year. This has resulted in a housing shortage that has become a 'Housing Crisis'.

There are several reasons for this. One issue is that the residential market is notoriously volatile and the large-volume house builders are working with very tight margins. This has historically made housing developments less attractive to create than other developments in terms of a build-to-sell model. Another reason is that local government planning decisions often take too long, which slows down or prevents people building new homes. Added to this, soaring house prices, especially in London and the South East, have resulted in a huge buy-up of UK housing stock by foreign investors.

How can developers capitalise on this opportunity?

Rising property prices and rising rents creates a win-win scenario. These are the key considerations that successful Build-to-Rent developers should look out for:

Target the right demographic

The average age of people looking to move into a first home in the UK is between 25 and 35 years old. The open market is not currently catering for this demographic, as most new home developments across the UK are 3-4 bed houses. The 25-35 age group are typically key workers, often young urban professionals, who are looking for a comfortable and affordable place to stay for a secure length of tenure. This group of people will happily live in PRS housing, as proven by the numerous successful emerging schemes.

However, they are not the only group for whom PRS would be suitable. Downsizers and students are equally attracted to rental accommodation if the right housing product can be offered. At the other end of the scale, with the prospect of the mansion tax looming, the better off are starting to rent rather than buy.

Build in the right location

The most successful PRS schemes are in urban locations, with local transport within walkable distance. Allowing for regional variations, a critical mass of 150 units or more is deemed ideal to guarantee return on investment, whether in one building or multiple buildings. Therefore, PRS developments are generally medium to high-density. Studies have shown that PRS is viable not only in London, but also in locations where there are strong employment rates and lower land values.

Create a sense of place

To attract and retain target group tenants, 25-35 year olds, the right lifestyle setting is important. Added amenities such as a concierge are part of the PRS life-style formula, and this is where PRS distinguishes itself from the Build-for-Sale sector. Other types of lifestyle facilities can include workspaces, communal roof terraces and gyms. Additional income can be generated from these facilities, although the prime objective is the contribution they make to place making and community building.

Tenants who feel they are part of a community tend to stay longer. This in turn reduces the risk of rent voids, which have a negative impact on net operating income. Studies show that people who know one other person in a building are 75% more likely to renew their tenancy. For people who know two other people, this rises to 90%.

Large pension funds and property companies are increasingly attracted to PRS because they offer non-volatile, high-quality investments that deliver long term returns.

Allow for building management

Effective building management enhances and protects the long-term value of a development. PRS investors are looking for income over long periods. As such, maintaining the quality of a site is important. In addition, communal spaces and services need to be well maintained as they are part of the extended home of the tenants.

Unit design needs to be carefully considered

85% net-to-gross ratio should be the minimum set for building efficiency. Maximising the number of units per core/floor, and the careful consideration of the aspect, will lead to a more efficient building. Unit sizes need to be carefully considered and related to rental income, whereas personal outside space can be balanced against communal outside space, like a roof terrace. 
Flexibility in the design layout of the units is important. They should be designed to cater for different modes of tenure, for young professionals who are house sharing or for families.

Use high-quality materials

As Build-to-Rent developments are designed for long-term investment purposes, the life-cycle of the building materials used plays a much greater role than in other developments. Finishes need to be high quality, robust and designed to last. 

Take advantage of Government initiatives

Government and local authorities view PRS developments positively because they benefit local communities by providing much needed homes. To stimulate the sector, the government has initiated a PRS taskforce, which has introduced a £10bn housing debt guarantee specifically for the building of private rented homes. In London, the Housing Zones initiative by the GLA is designed to stimulate the process of housing provision. A budget of £500 million has been set aside, as well as favourable PRS planning conditions put in place within the housing zones. These budgets are to be used for improving the public realm, placemaking, infrastructure and building new schools and libraries. These are all key elements which facilitate successful Build-to-Rent developments.

Do PRS projects stack up as an investment?

The perception is that Build-to-Rent developments result in smaller returns than Build-for-Sale developments. With rising house prices and rising rents, this is increasingly not true. Not only do PRS investors benefit from high UK rents, but the value of their assets increases steadily over time as house prices continue to rise steadily. For this very reason, large institutional investors such as pension funds and property companies are increasingly attracted to PRS as a long-term investment vehicle, as they are looking for non-volatile, high-quality investments offering long-term returns.

About the Author

Jeannette Veldkamp (IR, ARB, RIBA)

Associate Director, London

Jeannette joined Chapman Taylor in 1995 to work on international mixed-use regeneration projects in Europe.

Becoming an Associate Director in 2010, she specialises in mixed-use town centre redevelopment and urban regeneration schemes with the aim of optimising the mix of residential and retail offers to create successful urban places.

A member of Chapman Taylor’s UK Residential Team, one of Jeannette’s special areas of interest is the emerging PRS / Build-to-Rent sector where she is a regular contributor at round table events and guest speaker at residential sector industry events.  

Areas of expertise:

Town-centre Redevelopment / Mixed-Use / Retail / Residential / PRS Build-to-Rent / Sustainability

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