Improving Real Estate Economy Leading to Improving Seniors Housing Trends?
Among the improvement laggards in the current slow economic recovery was the real estate sector of the economy. Despite record low borrowing rates, home sales seemed stuck in neutral even as positive GDP growth resumed, modest gains in employment occurred, and consumer confidence improved.
Starting late summer 2012 and accelerating in to 2013, the real estate economy has strengthened and improved nicely. Historically, a healthy real estate economy correlates to strong seniors housing starts, sales and occupancy. With many major markets over-supplied as of late in terms of seniors housing units (demand perspective), an improving real estate economy, if trends hold true, imparts hope for the seniors housing sector – or does it?
Seniors housing, as I have written before, has a very price elastic demand curve. Essentially, this means that potential buyers and the universe thereof, is directly influenced by the cost of the housing option. Even when costs remain stable, the demand equation changes dramatically if the buyer for the units experiences change (real or perceived) in his/her economic capacity. Negative changes such as falling real estate prices, constrained ability to liquidate real estate, or reduction in the number of potential buyers for the real estate contribute directly to a senior’s ability and willingness to purchase a seniors housing option. The most dramatic impacts occur within projects that are above-market priced or higher-end as the elasticity of demand for the most expensive options is greatest. In effect, the higher the price the more the consumer of the product or service, will shift to lower cost alternatives, if his/her ability or capacity to purchase has changed (again, real or perceived).
What is most interesting about the real estate economy compared to other economic sectors is that national trends don’t play-out directly, in regional or local markets. Take for example, markets or regions where oil and natural gas production has exploded. Even during the slowest, most depressed times for the real estate economy nationally, the real estate sector in these regions and locales was booming. Housing of any form in areas such as Casper, Wyoming and Williston, North Dakota was (and remains) scarce, pricy, and by timing (supply and demand), development scarce. Conversely, some markets fared far worse than national trends in terms of foreclosures, time on the market and price deflation (Las Vegas and Chicago, IL are examples). Given the regional drivers that impact the real estate economy, recovery will vary dramatically.
Correlating a recovering real estate economy to an improving seniors housing sales and occupancy cycle is simplistic from a global perspective but at the site-specific end, a bit more daunting. What we know generally is that a more fluid, stable real estate market generally improves the occupancy, unit absorption and sales results for seniors housing. We also know that in general, by occupancy and ultimately, price inflation, it improves the operating results of seniors housing projects. What we don’t yet know is whether this recovery is a harbinger of longer-term real estate stability and does the improvement tide wash over all markets at some point and in what time frame.
Arguably, this recovery is perhaps different, certainly less uniform and due to other over-arching economic issues, more complex than any post recession period prior. In certain markets, those that were the least impacted by too much existing supply, rapid increases in unemployment and a large number of foreclosures (REO or REJ properties), recovery is impactful for seniors housing projects, especially if the unit supply is normative or about par with pre-recession demand. In other markets where prices fell dramatically, foreclosures were heavy and unemployment greater than national average, recovery will be slow. Even the latest positive economic news regarding the real estate economy is a tad misleading. Yes, most markets are improving. Yes inventory is down, days on the market is improving, listing prices are recovering, etc. (a few markets such as Columbus, OH, Philadelphia, PA and Spokane, WA continue to see price deflation) but the improvements are from a very, low point. In short, the improvements are signs of “recovery” not a validation of stability – yet.
While the road ahead appears somewhat smoother, the opportunity for pot-holes exists and thus, the relationship between real estate fortune and seniors housing is still rocky. My considerations worth noting are as follows.
- Employment and wage growth (personal income) is still stubbornly slow. Under-employment at record highs.
- In some markets, employment and under-employment will never return to post-recession levels. Certain jobs and companies are gone from the landscape for good.
- Interest rates today are less of a function of improving sales even though low rates improve affordability and thus, general increases in eligible buyers. Changes to federal lending laws and mortgage requirements have tightened credit requirements for borrowers. These changes, regardless of how low rates remain or go, preclude a large universe of individuals from securing favorable term mortgages. In short, the supply of buyers has shrunk and permanently so.
- Given how low rates have been and for how long, rate rise to a certain degree is forthcoming. Rising rates inversely impacts the supply of buyers (negatively).
- Price increases for individual homes won’t broach pre-recession levels (actual or inflation adjusted) for years in many markets. In certain markets such as the Metro Chicago region, price increases in terms of realized sales, are years out to achieve pre-recession par.
- The overall economy is still vulnerable and the consumer, still leery of what can lie ahead. Confidence is better but not great. Consumer confidence is critical to a buyer’s willingness to leverage long-term, arguably as critical as financial capability to buy.
- Seniors housing costs are at their low-ebb as expressed by monthly rental and in some communities, entry fees. While costs continue to rise, albeit not dramatically, the pressure to begin to inflate fees is present for many projects. Fee inflation during a recovery period or stabilization period is anathema to improving unit sales and developing new prospects. With the elasticity of the product, rising rates in a market that still isn’t healed can “chill” prospective buyers.
Is the trend improving for seniors housing? Yes but not universally and the real estate economy in many regions remains disconnected. Additionally, I think the direct correlation between a strong real estate economy and the prospect for seniors housing sales has changed. Yes it remains a major factor but property sales cycles will remain slower than prior periods, prices lower than prior periods, and buyers for individual homes, in lower numbers than in prior periods. The take-away is this: The improving real estate economy is good news, not necessarily great news or for that matter, a sign of salvation for projects looking to ramp-up sales with urgency. The trend is improving but full improvement, is still down the road and for certain, the road is different in direction than before.
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