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Bedroom economics - the impact of demographics on residential real estate

Changes in the age profile of populations will have a significant impact on demand for real estate; influencing the type, functionality and locations that are likely to be popular writes Monika Sujkowska.

4 minute read

picture - a row of houses

The population structure is changing across the world. Improving living conditions and medical advances are expected to lead to a rapid increase in the proportion of older people over the coming decades. The United Nations (UN) expects the share of the over-65s in the global population to increase from 8.3 per cent in 2015 to 16.2 per cent by 2050.

Younger age cohorts are projected to grow in absolute terms, but their share of the total population will shrink. The proportion of people aged under 20 globally will fall from today’s 34.2 per cent to 28.4 per cent in 2050.

Here, we examine how changing demographics affect demand for different types of residential property in four specific markets.

figure 1: The changing structure of the worlds population.

German apartments: opportunity or trap?

Multi-family residential rents have risen by over 20 per cent nationally since 2012 and prices by nearly 40 per cent1. Urbanisation resulted in much stronger growth in large cities, led by Berlin and Munich, which saw house prices increase by 11 per cent in 2016 alone2. The limited supply of residential space, as well as an increased interest in property as an investment given low yields in other asset classes, appears to have driven this strong performance.

Demographic projections for the country overall are subdued, however, and particularly concerning for 20-40 year-olds. The age group is a major source of demand for rented accommodation and its decline does not bode well for future growth in the rented apartments sector. The size of the population aged under 60 is expected to shrink by 13 per cent by 2030, according to the UN. This decline will be particularly steep for people in their twenties, with the number of 20-24 year olds expected to shrink by 19 per cent by 2030 and 25-29 year olds by 23 per cent.

Germany is the only Western European country where the working age population in even the largest cities is expected to decline in the short to medium term.  For example, Frankfurt’s population aged 15-65 is projected to shrink by 2.5 per cent by 2030 and Berlin’s by 4.2 per cent, according to Oxford Economics.

There are exceptions. Munich’s working age population is set to grow by 7.5 per cent in the same period, according to the same source. In addition to favourable demographics, there are significant barriers to entry for residential development, with local rules banning high-rises to protect historic views.

Nevertheless, demographic changes are a long-term headwind for the German residential sector. The structural characteristics of the market may also limit growth. Planning regulations support residential development, with the provision of housing being favoured over some other policies, such as the preservation of green space.

Although limited supply and high demand have spurred growth in recent years, the medium to long term outlook looks less promising given the declining number of twenty- and thirty-somethings.

UK – weakening demand for student accommodation?

The UK student accommodation sector has performed strongly in recent years, with prime rents up by an average of 5.9 per cent per year between 2006 and 20163. Higher yields than traditional real estate and good growth prospects have resulted in robust investor demand. Assets worth £6 billion were traded in 2015 and approximately £4.5 billion in 2016, compared to an average of £1.8 billion per year between 2010 and 20144.

Rising student numbers – applications to UK universities increased by 41.9 per cent between 2006 and 2016 and acceptances rose by 36.9 per cent over this period - have driven occupier demand5.

Following solid growth in the number of people aged 18-24 in 2000-2012 (20.5%), a 1.2 per cent decline was recorded between 2012 and 20156. Projections are available for the 15-24 age group. A 6.3 per cent fall is projected for this cohort for 2015-2020 due to the demographic dip in the early 2000s.

This decline is expected despite steady growth in the total UK population7. While a rebound is expected in 2025 following a recovery in birth rates during 2010-16, demographics are likely to limit demand for student accommodation over the medium term.

There are factors other than demographics that might yet spur demand. The UK student accommodation sector operated by private operators is still small, with bed spaces accounting for only 14.7 per cent of the full-time student population7. A growing preference for occupying privately-operated student facilities as opposed to house sharing or living in family homes could support demand. A significant rise in participation rates or a pick-up in overseas students choosing the UK as a place to study would also have an impact on aggregate demand, although there are downside risks to these sources of demand.

Investors should take a view on each of these demand drivers to judge if they can offset demographic weakness over the next 10 years.

Australia’s retirement villages

Demographic changes imply rising demand for all types of retirement living in Australia over the long term. The UN projects a 108.9 per cent increase in the number of people aged over 65 by 2050 – the highest growth rate in the developed world. This is only partially a product of an ageing population – Australia’s overall population growth projections also exceed other developed countries.

The provision of real estate suitable for retirees will have to increase to accommodate this growth. In countries like Japan and Germany, there is considerable flexibility to convert assets accommodating younger age groups into real estate suitable for older demographics. In Australia, robust growth across all age groups will limit the potential for conversions.

Investors need to asses the income growth prospects for retirement villages in Australia by taking into account not just favourable demographics but also the barriers to entry facing developments. Attractive cyclical opportunities are likely to exist as supply often lags demand. In the long term, however, out-of-town locations and the land-rich nature of the country may limit the rental growth potential.

US manufactured homes

Manufactured homes – including factory-built homes and recreational vehicles (RVs) – make up 6.4 per cent of US housing stock, according to the 2011 US Census.

A manufactured home (also called mobile homes) can be located on an owner’s land. Alternatively, an investor owning a manufactured-home community can lease land upon which residents can place their factory-built homes or RVs on a permanent, long-term or short-term basis.

Poorer members of the population have historically occupied manufactured homes. The household income of today’s occupiers still stands at just over half of the national average. There are, however, pockets of the market that attract residents with higher incomes, most notably some age-restricted communities. Around 23 per cent of US manufactured-home occupiers are currently retirees.

The US population aged over 65 is forecast to increase by 64 per cent over the next 15 years and by 82 per cent by 2050, which is likely to lead to a rise in the number of people in need of such accommodation.

Sunbelt states are particularly popular with retirees, and likely to remain so. In Florida, the proportion of over 65s currently stands at 20 per cent (compared to the national average of 15 per cent) and is expected to increase to 25 per cent in 2035.

Alongside demographic drivers, investors ought to consider supply side factors. Currently, securing zoning permits from US local authorities is a considerable barrier to entry. On the other hand, there are limited geographic barriers given the out-of-town locations. A more favourable regulatory environment for manufactured home site development would have a significant impact on the potential for rental growth.


Association of German Pfandbrief Banks (vdp), Macrobond

Stiftung Warentest


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