It’s complicated. In the course of compiling its annual Emerging Trends report, the Urban Land Institute found that the only certainty in its outlook for 2019 was uncertainty. Expert analysis points to a more complex, multi-layered series of overlapping trends, with unpredictable results, as opposed to a few strong narratives.
Will technology offer more opportunity and enhance competition and efficiency, or help consolidate the industry and drive out smaller players? How will shifts in demographics and shopping patterns challenge current investment practices? Will the U.S. ever get a grip on its housing affordability issues?
The report, a joint project of ULI and PricewaterhouseCoopers researchers unveiled during the group’s fall meeting in Boston, considered the responses of more than 750 real estate professionals in creating an high-level overview of the trends it believes will impact the real estate world. While the report expects an overall economic slowdown next year, emerging trends and markets in flux that could provide new opportunities.
Here are the broad trends and innovations expected to shape the real estate industry in 2019.
Grappling with a transformative moment
While vague, predicting a year of significant transformation only reflects the climate of uncertainty and possibility that’s recently settled over the market. In 2018, the homebuying market was expected to be the most competitive in history before buyers pumped the brakes later in the year. Curbed’s Jeff Andrews predicts prices will drop in west coast markets in early 2019.
After years of steady growth and low interest rates, many observers anticipate a correction, especially in the face new technology, generational and demographic changes, the rise of new markets, and the continued winding-down of traditional retail. One survey respondent described the feeling of “coming off a peak,” and others have said the “low-hanging fruit has been picked.”
One of the most far-reaching changes rewriting the way real estate professionals do business has been the rise of industry-specific technology, startups, and better and more transparent analytics. In many cases, capital is following fintech, or financial tech, leading to more efficient—and automated—transactions.
Tapering growth leads to a new numbers game
Less growth means a more challenging environment, and analysts predict a slow down on multiple fronts. Population growth has continued to trickle up, labor force availability, especially in the construction industry, is lackluster at best, and productivity figures for the economy at large show minuscule improvements. Add in government forecasts of an economic slowdown—Congressional Budget Office projections show average GDP growth of 1.9 percent in 2018-19, much slower than at the beginning of the current economic upswing—and real estate activity will likely taper off as well. This deceleration means identifying and capitalizing on new opportunities—such as emerging markets, replacing older buildings, adaptive reuse, and new office space—will be much harder.
Second cities, and now their suburbs, may be key markets
Investors have long seen urban revitalization in smaller U.S. cities as a great bet, but as these downtowns boom and millennials continue to return, young adults have started to make inroads into the suburbs. Researchers are seeing more evidence the younger generation that put off buying a home has its eyes on single-family homes, meaning that housing surrounding these so-called 18-hour cities—especially if it’s in walkable, transit-oriented developments—is in high demand.
Census Bureau stats show evidence of a second-city suburban shift. Over 2.6 million people annually moved from principal cities within metropolitan areas to the suburbs in 2016 and 2017, and of the smaller markets in the ULI’s Top 20 emerging market report, 55 percent of new residents over the last five years have relocated to suburban homes. The exodus from high-cost states such as California is helping to fuel this big demographic change.
Amenity creep and the apartment arms race
In a competitive housing market, apartment landlords and builders have been engaging in an arms race for new amenities. Fancy gyms and rooftop access doesn’t cut it anymore. Today’s cutting-edge multifamily developments include movie theaters, dog runs, communal gardens, and access to coworking space. As landlords “knock themselves over” looking for new selling points to attract downtown renters, smart home and service-economy firms are also rising to the challenge, offering benefits such as laundry service.
Technology tackles the real estate market
Tech has always had its eye on opportunity, and real estate, which represents 13 percent of the U.S. GDP, is a big prize. Next year will see increasing inroads by tech firms, services, and startups seeking to capture and consolidate this fragmented market. Venture capital and tech investors have responded in kind. CB Insights projects real estate tech investment may top $5.2 billion by the end of 2018, firms such as Fifth Wall have zeroed-in on the industry, and investment in building and construction tech has boomed. New platforms for home selling keep popping up, trying to disrupt how this traditional transaction works.
Continued rise of artificial intelligence
Will hype about the game-changing potential of artificial intelligence begin to manifest itself in the real estate industry? While some tech startups have integrated AI into their market analyses, perhaps the most immediately relevant use for machine learning and other emerging technologies is building management, organization, and design.
Companies such as WeWork, and smart buildings such as The Edge already see big potential in analyzing user behavior in their shared office space to refine their offerings, redesign the layout of their spaces, and create a virtuous feedback loop. ULI report authors suggest that for the real estate industry, AI may offer big benefits for building efficiency and safety, as well as security and property access.
Dealing with the real costs of free delivery
As next-day increasingly becomes just-in-time, a sea change in logistics and shopper expectations has created new challenges for the real estate industry. The never-ending hunger Amazon and other e-commerce companies have for warehouse space has supercharged the industrial real estate sector, but the possibilities of increasing speedy delivery have contributed to transportation gridlock in major U.S. cities, as well as pollution near logistics centers.
Add this to increasingly underfunded infrastructure: Businesses will bear an estimated $240 billion in congestion costs over the next five years, while annual spending on roads and highways is just 37 percent of what’s needed to keep pace with deterioration. It’s clear real estate will not only have to factor in, and pay the price for, this oversight, but will need to pay attention to how potential solutions—such as congestion pricing—impact land values and investment opportunities.
Retail transforming into a new equilibrium
The much-hyped retail apocalypse narrative overstates the situation: it’s not extinction, more a culling of the herd. The rise of omni-channel retail and the shrinking size of America’s retail footprint—a response to e-commerce and just-in-time delivery—means commercial developers and investors need to support more efficient uses of space, and see how everyone, from small firms to big box stores, are seeking out a better, not necessarily bigger, brick-and-mortar presence.
This is an era where merchandizing is being overshadowed by services, and the rise in new kinds of tenants—such as urgent-care medical facilities, health and fitness providers, restaurants, financial services, and entertainment venues—underscore the strength of the experience economy. It’s also changing how leases are written. With the sector in flux, the standard long-term agreement is making way to shorter deals, even pop-up leases.
A renewed sustainability focus
In the wake of serious recent reports on climate change, there’s been a renewed focus on sustainability in the building and construction industries from groups such as We Are Still In and the Climate Mayors. As calls to curb emissions and control environmental impacts only rise over the next decade, more and more investors and building managers will make green practices a core part of their business. “Real estate has been proactive on sustainability issues for many years,” reads the report. “As a matter of self-interest as well as social responsibility, the industry is moving ahead to advance its sustainability performance regardless of the direction of national policy.”
The acute affordability crisis
The statistics couldn’t be clearer: the United States faces a widespread housing crisis, from big cities to small towns. Half of all renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, HUD says 12 million Americans spend more than half their earnings on a place to live, and since 2015, the combination of rising prices for single-family homes and rising mortgage rates has cut home affordability by 15 percent. This country needs new homes, and fast; academics estimate the U.S. requires 4.6 million additional rental units by 2030.
That rate of construction should be possible, based on the money bring invested in the multifamily sector, but for a variety of reasons, including regulations, new construction has and remains skewed towards the upper end of the market. A vast reckoning will take place in the rental market. Hopefully public and private stakeholders can work together and build off a handful of good examples to rework how rental buildings are funded and delivered.