It won’t surprise anyone that the COVID-19 pandemic affected housing in 2020. Now that it’s been more than a year since the pandemic took hold globally, many entities are offering new — and more precise — insights into longer-term trends and ramifications on certain sectors, and what we might expect to see in the coming year.

Apartment List, an online marketplace for unit openings, and Kidder Mathews, a local real estate agency, are just two such experts to share reports detailing how housing — specifically apartment living — has been influenced in the course of a tumultuous year.

In its National Rent Report, Apartment List homed in on pricing trends. Kidder Mathews looked at sales in its 2021 market study. Some findings were in line with what one might expect to see in a year defined by unpredictability; others shirked expectations.

“In 2020, a great majority of the apartment investment market turned its focus to maintaining operations — a massive shift from the ‘hurry and sell’ mentality of 2019, which was markedly impacted by changes in the real estate excise tax changes approved for 2020 and beyond,” Dylan Simon and Jerrid Anderson, executive vice presidents with Kidder Mathews, wrote in the report. “For those apartment owners and investors that chose to sell their apartment buildings in 2020, a year of uncertainty proved sales results that were far better than the market may otherwise have predicted.”

As far as apartment pricing goes, the Apartment List report stated that, as of early 2021, “Although the data continue to show significant regional variation, the markets that have been most heavily impacted by the pandemic are beginning to enter calmer waters. In the pricey coastal metros where rents have been plummeting, (February 2021) data implies that we may have reached the bottom. At the other end of the spectrum, many of the midsize markets that have seen rents grow rapidly through the pandemic have seen just modest increases this month.”

Sales

Kidder Mathews found that in 2020, the Urban Tacoma region — christened as the “crown jewel” of the South Sound — has been a hard market to enter, since not many apartment buildings sell there on a year-by-year basis as it is. Between 2016 and 2018, for instance, just 11 apartment buildings were sold, with 12 transactions in both 2019 and 2020.

However, the report noted that, similar to East and Urban King County, investors who decide to be patient with the Urban Tacoma area might see rewards later as renters and investors alike get more confidence in the increasingly developing downtown.

Kidder Mathews noted that in the Suburban Pierce County area, apartment investors have only a limited time to find good deals, since asset values are continuing to get bid-up. In 2020, sales metrics “smashed expectations,” and were carried by marquee sales in Puyallup and South Tacoma specifically, according to the report.

In 2020, there were 46 total apartment building sales — a notable jump from the 38 in 2019. “These record-breaking sale figures were achievable due to rent and vacancy stability in Pierce County compared to the rest of Puget Sound — bolstering investor confidence,” the report stated. “Although sales metrics skyrocketed, Suburban Pierce continues to provide investment returns that are simply unachievable in other Puget Sound investment markets.”

Kitsap County reportedly continued “its streak as a sweetheart investment market.” Large and small apartment investors alike have maintained a consistent interest in this region. Sales increased between 2019 and 2020, going from six to nine.

In 2020, the Kitsap area lived up to Kidder Mathews’ predictions: There were more sales of smaller apartment buildings (which are classified as having 50 units or less), and private investors additionally began to take notice of “what institutional investors have known for years and invested in this high-upside market.”

Kidder Mathews added in the report that it was “challenging to truly capture the rocky road that apartment sales transactions faced in 2020” when looking at the Seattle/Puget Sound area on the whole.

The report characterized Quarter 1 as a “false start” (sales were at an “edge-of-the-cliff standstill by March 2020”). Quarter 2 was “the adjustment” (the health crisis changed renter preferences; owners and investors had to “understand the impacts of slowing economic fundamentals”). Quarter 3 was “a new normal” (apartment investments gained steam, “with a demonstrated shift to sales of smaller assets and more suburban-located assets”).

By the fourth quarter of 2020, listing volume increases resulted in more sales. According to Kidder Mathews, nearly 50 percent of all sales in 2020 happened during this quarter.

Prices

In the Puget Sound/Seattle region — which comprises 4.3 million people in the Kidder Mathews report — 36.2 percent of the population in 2020 was made up of renters. The average rent price was $1,610; the average household income was $121,519. According to Apartment List’s report, the most expensive rent in the Seattle area was in the Eastside city of Redmond; the five most-expensive rents in the region were confined generally to the Eastside and Seattle proper. The South Sound, in contrast, represented the more affordable rents in the Seattle area: Kent, Federal Way, Auburn, and Tacoma had two-bedroom apartment rents standing at $1,620, $1,570, $1,470, and $1,430, respectively, as of January 2021.

In addition to having the lowest two-bedroom rent median, Tacoma, according to the Apartment List report, also experienced the fastest rent-price growth in the Seattle area: Its year-over-year increase amounted to a notable 4 percent. Although rents in Seattle proper have steadily decreased in the last year, rents in the general Seattle area have remained fairly variable.

Looking Ahead

Even though sales in Urban Tacoma weren’t major in 2020, the Kidder Mathews report still was optimistic about what the market could have in store for the future.

“Although pricing metrics subsided compared to 2019, we maintain confidence in Urban Tacoma as a hot investment market,” the report stated. “It remains at the top of investors’ wish lists for Pierce County, and apartment owners should take advantage in 2021.”

In the suburban Pierce region, the Kidder Mathews report predicted that investors would continue to search for investment returns outside of Seattle, which should provide a healthy pool of buyers for this area.

“We forecast a healthy sales market for apartment owners, as a serious amount of capital is available for Pierce County apartment opportunities, and we don’t see that trend abating anytime soon,” the report stated.

In Kitsap County, investors should see more stabilized post-value-add properties hit the market, the Kidder Mathews report predicted.

Despite COVID-19, Seattle and its urban neighborhoods remain one of the most active sales markets nationwide, according to the report.

“If you are thinking of selling in the next two to three years, it’s hard to argue there is a better time than now,” Anderson said in the report. “Limited apartments on the market with pent-up investor demand make 2021 a good year to sell if you plan to sell in the next several years.”

The Apartment List report noted that in 2021, rent increases have so far been slowing down nationwide, suggesting, “A period of intense volatility in local rental markets may be nearing an end.”