Rental Outlook 2012: The Good Times Roll on


The stars are aligned to make 2012 an extraordinary year for rental income.  The decline in homeownership is translating into rising rents and the multifamily apartment sector, though booming today, was late catching the wave.  If it weren’t for the new investor-driven single family rentals in many markets, rents would be zooming even higher than they already are.

The New Normal in Homeownership Creates Demand

Changing attitudes towards homeownership have been pushing up rental demand since 2004, before the housing bust.  The number of homeowner households declined by 805,000 from 2006 to 2010 and the number of renters rose steadily for six consecutive years, increasing 3.9 million during that period, according to Census data.  The net increase of in 2012 alone was 1.4 million new rental households, a 1.5 percent decline in the national homeownership rate and a 4 percent rise in the number of tenants.

Much of the rental demand is from younger households that are postponing or even canceling homeownership in favor of renting.  The decline in the homeownership rate has been sharpest for those household heads under 30 years of age.  Owner rates have fallen by 4.4 percent (to 21.9 percent) for those under 25 years of age and by 7.0 percent (to 34.7 percent) for those aged 25 to 29 years, according to Freddie Mac.

Multifamily Struggles to Keep Up

Multifamily rental housing can’t keep up with the demand.  Census Bureau reported that third quarter vacancies for rental housing were only 9.2 percent, 1.4 points lower than a year ago and .5 percent below the first quarter.  We haven’t seen a 9.2 percent vacancy rate since 2003.  A Reis Inc. survey of professionally managed buildings in metropolitan markets found vacancy rates stood at 5.9 percent during the third quarter, the lowest since 2007 for that class of apartment.

Apartment developers and investors are a conservative lot and they took a wait-and-see attitude towards the rapid and dramatic changes in the rental market.  Now, however, things are popping.  In November starts of residential developments with two or more units saw a 25.3 percent increase from the previous month , the construction of apartments, town houses and other multifamily developments, evidence that rising demand for rental housing has encouraged developers to begin building again. Newly issued building permits, a gauge of future construction, climbed 5.7 percent in November from a month earlier to an annual rate of 681,000, a 24.3 percent increase from November 2010 and the highest rate since March 2010. The overwhelming majority are for multifamily units.

Even so, developers can’t keep up. Two-thirds of developers surveyed in the third quarter by the National Multifamily Housing Council said construction activity is underway, and 20 percent are breaking ground on new projects at a rapid clip.  The other 47 percent reported an increase in pre-construction activities-acquiring land, lining up financing, getting building permits-but not much actual construction yet.  Yet even with this increased activity, more than half (54 percent) think new development remains considerably below demand.

Single Family Fills the Void

In the dorky world of real estate economics, single family rentals are the newest kid on the block.  Just recently have databases serving the residential investor tracked single family apart from multifamily, but it’s very clear that in many markets today single family rentals are taking up the slack.  From 2005 to 2010, single-family rentals grew at 21 percent versus just a 4 percent increase in total housing units, according to Zelman Associates.

Single family demand is closely linked to foreclosure activity in the hardest hit markets as families displaced by foreclosure prefer to rent a single family home rather than crowd into an apartment.  In hot foreclosure markets attractive to investors, such as Nevada, Arizona and Florida, single-family rental units have increased 48 percent, while apartment units were virtually unchanged.  According to the Census Bureau, since 2004 there are 3.60 million homes built for sale that are being utilized as rental today.

2012 Rental Outlook

The national median rental rate rose to $1,004 in the third quarter, up from $981 in the third quarter of 2010, according to Reis Inc. Although overall rent growth will vary greatly by metro, on a national median rent increase will come in somewhere between 2.5 to 4.0 percent for 2011, depending on whose data you use.

However, 2012 could be even better.  Fannie Mae is currently projecting that average asking rents on a national basis could experience an annualized increase of between 2.0 percent and 3.0 percent.   Others are less conservative. The National Association of Realtors forecasts multifamily rents to rise 3.5 percent next year. Axiometrics’ research forecasts a national rental growth rate of 5.5 percent. Christina Aragon, Director of Marketing and Customer Insights at, predicts the vacancy rate will hover at a only 5 percent and rents will explode. Now, Aragon expects rents to spike 7 percent over the next two years.

As we all know, there is no such thing as a “national” real estate market.  Numbers like those cited above are merely estimates of national medians across hundreds of local markets.  Relying on a national real estate forecast to predict prices or rents in your market is like using a national weather forecast to tell you whether it will rain in your backyard this afternoon.  The big picture may or may not be relevant to your market situation.

 Local Market Rental Outlooks

However, the good news is that many of the hottest markets for investors, rents are going to the most.  Increases will likely top the 10 percent mark annually for the next couple of years, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting quoted in CNNMoney. In San Diego, rents will rise more than 31 percent by 2015 and in Boston, they may jump between 25 percent and 30 percent. Seattle rents will climb 4.5 percent next year and 6 percent in 2013.

A number of metro areas have actually had double-digit effective rent growth. High-density, west coast metro areas such as San Francisco with 14.8 percent and San Jose with 11.7 percent year-over-year effective rent growth rates are not totally unexpected. Charlotte with 7.2 percent rent growth; Miami with 5.6 percent; and even Denver with 6.6 percent effective rent increases, are less predictable examples.  Axiometrics expects San Jose, San Francisco, and Austin to remain among the top 10 markets in effective rent growth in 2012 and Las Vegas is expected to become one of the most improved markets in 2012.

Local economies, especially jobs, will drive local demand.  Over the next three years, Local Market Monitor expects rents to rise 18 percent in Houston, 15 percent in Grand Rapids, 25 percent in Rochester, 16 percent in Dallas and 19 percent in Tulsa.

Landlords increasing rents by 2 to 4 percent this year may find tenants won’t be surprised.  Consumers expect home rental prices to increase by 3.2 percent over the next year, according to a recent Fannie Mae survey. Some 41 percent said rents will increase next year, 48 percent expect rents to stay the same and only 6 percent expect them to fall. The November numbers showed a slight retreat from October, when 43 expected rents to rise and 47 expected them to stay the same.

“Most Americans expect no improvement in their personal financial situation in the next 12 months and will likely remain wary about undertaking the significant financial obligation associated with homeownership until their view of their income, expenses, and job security heads in a more positive direction,” said Doug Duncan, vice president and chief economist of Fannie Mae.

Photo: Cliff

About Author

Steve Cook is the editor of Real Estate Economy Watch and writes for a several leading outlets in addition to BiggerPockets, including Equifax and Total Mortgage. He also provides communications consulting services to leading real estate companies. Previously he was vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Realtors.


  1. I’ve been selling real estate in Burlington, Vermont. We continue to have a very strong rental market, heavily influenced by our colleges, but relocation folks have been renting until they decide to buy which has kept our vacancy ratios around 1% for the past few years. Even in our surrounding towns. This has kept our rents high and also increasing each year. I’ve noticed too that single family homes are becoming more “rentals” vs. just multifamily buildings as mentioned in your article. With interests rates where they are, the ones that can become landlords should.

    • Ernie:

      Thanks for yoru comment, and I appreciate your point about single family vs multifamily. The major reason I didn;t have much data on single family rentals as a category is there hsut isn’t much out there in the world of real estate economics…yet. I plan to address the emergence of single family rentals in a future article.



    • Robert Steele on

      Hell yeah it is!

      I was completely blown away this past summer when I had to fill two vacancies and two new rentals. I had them rented within a matter of days and actually had two tenants offer me more than I was asking on two separate properties even though I raised all my rents and was asking at the top of the market range.

      I have one property that I cannot raise the rent fast enough to keep up with the neighborhood! They are good tenants and I don’t want to scare them off by raising the rent 15-20% on the gamble of getting a bad tenant. So I am playing catch-up.

      Any new leases moving forward are also getting 3-4% rent increases if the market can support it. It is so important to not be afraid to raise the rent when the market dictates it or you can fall behind the curve like I did on one.

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  3. informs me that Christina Aragon’s estimate of vacancies and rents cited in the original article above is outdated. Her current prediction is that as of January 2012, rents will rise 4.25 percent over the next two years.

  4. Few local economies are booming, so I don’t see where your tenants are going to come up with the money, other than by moving closer to bread-and-water diets, which are not sustainable long-term. And of course it’s not as if (generally) they have a lot of money even in a booming economy.

    How is it working out for you – or do you even have a clue? Are your tenants neglecting their own buckets while filling yours faster? That’s not sustainable either.

    • Terry:

      Thanks for your comment. Property management is not my expertise and I hope readers didn’t see my piece as a call to raise their rents. I was simply trying to report on the forces underway in markets across the country.


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