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Apartment Rents Fall as Crush of New Supply Hits Market

Apartment Rents Fall as Crush of New Supply Hits Market

Declines signal tenants may be maxed out on how much income they can devote to rent


In Seattle, new-lease rents have tumbled 8% since August.


By Will Parker, WSJ

Updated Feb. 27, 2023 2:00 pm ET



Apartment rents fell in every major metropolitan area in the U.S. over the past six months through January, a trend that is poised to continue as the biggest delivery of new apartments in nearly four decades is slated for this year.


Renters with new leases in January paid a median rent that was 3.5% lower than they would have paid last August, according to estimates from listing website Apartment List. It was the first time in five years that rent fell every month over a six-month period, according to the same estimates.


Four other market measures by housing-data companies also show that new-lease rents either fell or remained flat in January compared with the previous month, extending a streak of monthly rent declines that began at the end of the summer.


The softening rental market follows an unprecedented run for the apartment and home-rental industry put into motion by the pandemic. Pent-up demand for housing exploded in the months after the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines in late 2020 and a surge in people searching for apartments lifted rents 25% over two years.


Now, recent declines are a sign that many tenants have maxed out on how much of their income they can devote to rent, while the specter of layoffs has created new concerns for some. Other would-be renters, living with family or friends, remain sidelined by prices that are still far too high for their budgets.


While some seasonal stalling in rents is normal, the market faces a significant headwind in the biggest delivery of new supply since 1986, according to projections from CoStar Group. Nearly half a million new apartments are coming on line this year as developers seek to cash in on the high rents that tenants have been paying. Many renters are unable to afford to buy a home because of higher mortgage rates and steep prices, so rentals have been in high demand.


Rents have retreated alongside recent declines in home-sale prices, which fell 3.6% between June and November, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index. Higher mortgage rates and softening buyer demand have been weighing on home prices, despite a period this year when lower rates sparked an uptick in buyer interest.


But where housing inventory remains unusually low—to the benefit of home sellers—the crush of new apartment supply will give renters more choices, making it more difficult for landlords to raise rents at rates seen early in 2022, when rent growth was at a near-20% annual clip.


Economists have long said that renting and investing in the stock market is a better investment than owning a house, and in 2022 that could be especially true. WSJ’s Dion Rabouin explains. Photo illustration: Elizabeth Smelov

The new supply may already be having an impact. The share of apartment tenants who renewed leases declined in January to 52%, the lowest level for that month since 2018, according to property-management software company RealPage. The data suggests some tenants are finding better deals at other buildings.


“Renters facing lease renewals suddenly have a lot more options,” RealPage economist Jay Parsons said in a report. Landlords are likely to start dropping their renewal rents to prevent tenants from leaving, he added.


Shelter costs were up 7.9% in January compared with the same month a year earlier, according to the consumer-price index computed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the impact of rent declines tends to lag behind what is expressed in the CPI. Many renters are in the middle of leases signed before recent price drops. That is one reason why the rising cost of rent reflected in the CPI shows annual price growth that is still higher than market measures, which track new leases.


Measured annually, rent growth remains positive, according to most data sources. But the pace of growth is decelerating, and if it continues to slow beyond winter, it would help pull down headline inflation figures, of which housing costs are a major component.


New-lease rent growth ranged from about 2% to 6% in January compared with one year prior, according to most market reports, down significantly from the pace of growth in early 2022. As more leases expire, analysts expect CPI figures to better reflect the lower costs of new leases.


Rents for single-family homes, which had also increased sharply before last summer, now are stalling, too.


In the months since August, new-lease rents have fallen most sharply in some of the nation’s biggest metro areas. Seattle rents have tumbled 8%, while rents in Boston and Las Vegas have fallen 6%, according to Apartment List. The Seattle metro area’s median rent was $1,706 in January, while in the Boston metro area it was $1,879. Other measurements of rent with different sample criteria show much higher rent prices, but similar long-term trends in price movement.


Notably, none of the 52-largest metro areas tracked by Apartment List experienced positive rent growth over the period.


Rents for single-family homes, which had also increased sharply before last summer, now are stalling, too. The average national asking rent for a house rose just one buck in January, compared with December, to reach $2,070, according to data provider Yardi Matrix.


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Apartment vacancies have risen since last fall, several reports show, due to weaker demand from potential renters. Fewer people are flocking to Zoomtowns—communities that experienced a surge in population from an influx of remote workers—such as Boise, Idaho, or Phoenix compared with earlier in the pandemic, a recent report from listing website Zumper notes.


Even after a 3.5% decline in new-lease rents since last summer, rents in many cities remain 20% or 30% higher than they were when the pandemic began. Rents in the Tucson, Ariz., Tampa, Fla., and Miami metro areas are all 35% higher than in March 2020, according to an Apartment List report.


“Renters are still having a tougher time than they were even a year-and-a-half ago,” said Chris Salviati, economist at Apartment List.



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