"The spreads between rates and treasuries are still pretty wide ... " -- Ben Thypin, Real Capital Analytics
"The spreads between rates and treasuries are still pretty wide ... " -- Ben Thypin, Real Capital Analytics

How low can they go?

From 2005 through 2006, apartment cap rates hit a floor of 6.2 percent multiple times, before spiking back up to 7.2 percent after the credit crisis of late 2008, according to Real Capital Analytics (RCA). 

But cap rates found a new bottom this year. In the third quarter of 2014, they fell to 5.9 percent, an all-time low, according to RCA. While there may not be a cataclysmic event like the 2008 financial crisis on the horizon, some apartment investors and owners are beginning to wonder if some buyers may be getting too aggressive. 

While he still sees strong fundamentals, David Schwartz, CEO of Chicago-based Wateron Associates, is concerned some investors may be too reliant on interest rates staying low.

“It’s a great time to lock 10-year money today,” he says. “A lot of people are floating everything. That is generating good yields but it has risk.”

Matt Lester, the founder and CEO of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Princeton Enterprises, thinks buyers who overpaid in the top markets may ultimately have a shorter lifespan because of overly optimistic rent growth predictions. 

“There have been deals that got done, where any blip in performance or any unforeseen hurdle, could cause their acquisition or venture to tank,” he says. “I think we’re past the peak in cap rate compression.”

Not everyone has such dire predictions, but they’re prepared if multifamily has passed its peak in the cycle, which is now five years into recovery. 

“If I’m paying the same cap rate in the fourth inning of a recovery as I am in the seventh inning, I don’t feel as comfortable,” says Bobby Lee, president and COO of Los Angeles-based JRK Property Holdings. “You have little bit less of runway. Pricing may have been the same as year ago, but know you have one less year of this outsized growth."

If buyers don’t realize that, Lee thinks they could be in trouble. 

“To me the fundamentals of multifamily won’t kill multifamily,” Lee says. “Unless there is massive overbuilding in a market, what can kill multifamily is if you buy too expensively and overleverage. The price and value of what you pay for today is probably your single biggest risk on a micro basis.”

Sunny Days Ahead?
While even observers like Schwartz might have questions about certain deals, there are a couple of notable differences in today’s market versus the mid 2000’s.

Positive leverage on deals (with cap rates trending higher than interest rates) and strong demand (the last cycle saw high moveouts to home ownership) gives the apartment business a boost it didn’t have last time.

“I still think the fundamentals are terrific and the stars are aligned from the standpoint of capital,” says Mark Alfieri, CEO of Plano, Texas-based Monogram Residential Trust. “I don’t see anything in multifamily sector from a supply or demand standpoint that has me concerned right now.”

When judging cap rates, observers usually look to the risk premium, or the spread between cap rates and the 10-year Treasury. And right now, things are solid on that front. 

“The spreads between rates and treasuries are still pretty wide and the outlook for NOI is pretty good right now,” says Ben Thypin, director of market analysis at RCA. 

Brian E. McAuliffe, senior managing director for Los Angeles-based CBRE Group, is maybe even more bullish. While oversupply, a spike in treasuries, or a political event could push up cap rates, he points to demographics (Millennials moving into higher paying jobs), positive job growth, and a sluggish single-family markets as factors that could continue pushing cap rates down.  

“There has been a lot of discussion about whether we we’re in the seventh inning or eighth inning of the recovery,” he says, going back to the baseball analogy. “Given where performance was on the supply side, there is a significant amount of experts who think we’re in the fourth and fifth inning of multifamily performance.”