Home builders are seeing booming business in Germany, but they are still not building anywhere near enough properties – despite the appearance of brand new developments in city suburbs such as Frankfurt’s Riedberg.
A total of 245,300 homes were completed in 2014, but net immigration was more than double that. The arrival since then of large numbers of refugees makes the need to build new accommodation all the more pressing. Well-regarded forecasts suggest that Germany needs up to 400,000 new homes each year.
However, immigration is far from the only factor supporting values in residential property.
One tailwind is the state of Europe’s biggest economy. Output grew by 1.7% in 2015 – the fastest pace in four years. Consumer confidence remains high, buoyed by low energy prices, which have boosted wages in real terms.
Another factor driving residential property is low interest rates. The yield on 10-year Bunds is at around 0.2%; this makes mortgage debt affordable by keeping the rates charged to homeowners low. We expect this low-yield environment to continue: the European Central Bank is still cutting rates. This will also sustain property values by encouraging institutional investors to continue putting money into the sector: with yields on investment-grade bonds so low, many are looking to property to provide them with decent income.
Given the supportive background for residential property, it’s not surprising that prices have already risen. Have they already climbed so far that there is little value left? Some prime markets in the centres of big cities look overpriced, these days. However, our fundamental value indicator suggests that, on a national scale, assets are overpriced by only about 11%. We think this fairly moderate premium leaves many opportunities for investment.
One promising sector is high-quality assets with good energy standards. They offer potential for institutional owners to grow rents. Another is the commuter belts of cities, since there is less competition among investors for property here.
Investors often focus on pure residential, but they should also consider mixed-use property. Investments that combine residential with retail – for example, a block that includes a supermarket or a medical centre as well as homes – look increasingly attractive to us.
Mixed-use investments can often provide higher overall returns than residential on its own – but without adding much risk.
Mixed-use investments can often provide higher overall returns than residential on its own – but without adding much risk. The sectors can, in fact, complement each other, like two metals forming an alloy that is more effective than each metal on its own. The residential part offers low vacancy rates and tenant turnover, while the retail part holds the attraction of long-term leases.
To put this in numbers, we estimate that a typical gross yield for newly built residential property is about 4.5%. A typical yield for convenience retail – smaller and mid-sized stores serving the local neighbourhood – is around 6 percent. Combining the two might provide a yield, for a mixed-use asset, of a little over 5 percent.
Another advantage is practicality. An institutional investor might find a single supermarket too small to bother with, after considering the costs in manager time required to invest in and then look after the asset. Mixing a supermarket with residential property, however, could increase the value of the investment considerably, bringing it into line with the kind of size that institutional investors need.
A final advantage is opportunity. Good chances are already available for investing in mixed-use property in residential areas in central locations, in the search for stable long-term income. Further promising investments are likely to come on stream because the government is keen on mixed-use districts, and is happy to encourage them by easing construction requirements and emission controls.
Investors are, in some ways, like those intrepid naturalists who foray into unexplored cloud forests, classifying every bird, beetle and butterfly they find by family and species. They love to identify the existence of new asset classes, and then to split them into various sub-classes. But this focus on classification can be excessive – at least in the world of investment. Dividing German property into a number of discrete types, such as office, retail, industrial and residential, can result in missed opportunities. In investment, as in nature, it is sometimes the strange hybrids that are strongest – as any old-time gold prospector who relied on mules to get his heavy treasure the long way back into town could have testified.