Institutional ownership small, but impact looms large

Even though the share of institutional ownership of single-family rentals remains small, the impact of institutional investors looms large.

If you need evidence of the keen interest of institutional buyers in the single-family home market, look no further than investment giant Blackstone. In late June, Blackstone Real Estate Income Trust agreed to scoop up Home Partners of America in a deal valued at $6 billion. Home Partners of America owns more than 17,000 single-family homes across the U.S. that it rents to Americans who aren’t yet ready to buy homes. 

It’s no wonder that Blackstone coveted Home Partners of America. According to John Burns Real Estate Consulting and the National Rental Home Council, demand for single-family rentals sits at an all-time high. And the council says more than half of all rental units in the U.S. are now single-family homes. Yet of the roughly 15 million single-family rental homes in the U.S., institutional investors own only about 2%, according to real estate consulting firm RCLCO.

Real estate brokerage firm Redfin reported in May that U.S. home purchases by institutional investors rose 2.7% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same time last year. During the first three months of this year, investors bought nearly 15% of U.S. homes, up from about 10% during the previous three quarters.

Focus on upper-end, single-family homes

As institutional investors jump back into the single-family mix, they’re focusing more heavily on upper-end properties. Redfin says investor purchases of high-priced homes climbed 19.8% in the first quarter compared with the same period last year. By comparison, investor purchases of mid-priced homes rose 12.7% and investor purchases of low-priced homes declined 9.2%.

Some real estate professionals complain that no matter the price point, institutional investors continue to swoop in with all-cash offers, leaving agents and potential buyers on the sidelines. 

“Voracious and insatiably hungry, these [corporate buyers] are now increasingly soliciting sellers directly and buying homes before they ever reach the MLS,” Alon Chaver, chairman of Broker Public Portal, which created the Homesnap home search platform, wrote recently.

The new breed of investors

John Burns, CEO of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, said investors who at one point were seeking distressed properties have been displaced by a new breed of investors in search of yield-generating rental homes.

“There have been a lot of headlines that this is Wall Street, when the reality is both Wall Street and a lot of local investors, as well as small retail investors, are buying into newly formed rental home REITs or pools of homes created by Fundrise, CrowdStreet, Yieldstreet and others,” Burns said.

While some folks still may view institutional investors as the boogeyman in the single-family home market, research published in 2020 by the Urban Institute indicates institutional investors have boosted local home prices and reduced vacancy rates, and have not spurred higher rental costs.

Those insights don’t negate the fact that Realtors and potential homebuyers are, in some cases, running up against deep-pocketed institutional investors.

Steven Barks, president and CEO of Worth Clark Realty, said institutional investors are just as prevalent today in St. Louis, the market where he lives, as they’ve been in the past five years. These days, investors’ “bread and butter” is suburban homes selling for roughly $250,000 to $300,000, he said.

For one institutional investor in Barks’ area, the approach has been “get as many houses at all costs,” he said, including the likelihood of waiving all contingencies. That investor has snapped up roughly 1,000 homes in the St. Louis market in the past three years or so, according to Barks.

Many of the investor-purchased homes in Barks’ region are trading hands in off-market deals, he said. And in some cases, investors are simply swapping single-family home portfolios with one another. Whatever the case, a lot of institutional investors have adopted a buy-and-hold approach to homebuying, according to Barks.

“They’re getting way more than they ever dreamed in terms of returns, so they’re just not selling — they’re still sitting on them,” Barks said.

In some instances, these flush-with-cash investors are deterring everyday homebuyers, he said. Yet some buyers plunking down wads of cash are actually everyday buyers themselves; it just so happens that they, like heavyweight investors, also have a pile of money to put toward a deal.

It’s about free-market economics

Barks said he believes in free-market economics, so he’s reluctant to paint institutional investors as “the bad guys.” Still, he thinks institutional purchases are shutting the door on some prospective homebuyers. Therefore, he’d like to see regulations or incentives that might make single-family homes less enticing to institutional investors.

Liz Richards, a real estate agent in the Denver area, said that amid stiff competition from institutional buyers and others, she cautions her clients that they may need to make concessions to win the bidding for a home. That might include agreeing to buy the home “as-is” or to fill a gap between the purchase price and the appraised value. Nevertheless, institutional investors are active in most deals, Richards said, and often shut out competitors.

“There’s just a lot of cash out there,” Richards said.

Chaver, the chairman of Broker Public Portal, maintains that the scenario described by Richards means institutional buyers are depleting the inventory of the “most marketable” homes. That’s opposed to the Great Recession, when investors largely zeroed in on foreclosures in poor condition, according to Chaver.

These days, he wrote, institutional investors are converting thousands of homes into rentals, rapidly removing inventory for first-time homebuyers. Sheharyar Bokhari, senior economist at Redfin, believes that trend is exacerbating the country’s housing shortage.

This is “kicking first-time homebuyers in the head,” Chaver wrote, “as they are already lying on the ground, and all of this is happening in the name of serving consumers by arguing that fast cash is better than fair value for your home.”