To hear most CFOs tell it, 2013 should be even better than the stellar year now winding to a close.

multifamily executive’s sister publication apartment ­finance today recently conducted its annual CFO Strategies Survey to tap the top financial minds behind some of the industry’s largest transactions to find out where the biggest opportunities were this year, and where they will be found next year. The results are in, and a consensus has emerged on several key performance indicators in the market.

For one, 2011 was marked by a mad dash to bring new units to undersupplied markets. This year has proven to be much the same, as finance professionals continue to be bullish on fundamentals moving forward.

But many companies are charging into 2013 with even more accelerated efforts than this year, the survey revealed. And the recovery has been broad: Most respondents say there is no longer such a thing as a distressed market in the multifamily industry.

Here are some of the survey’s topline results.

Movin’ on Up

According to the 190 financial executives surveyed, about 39 percent said they plan to enter new markets in 2013, compared with just 5 percent who plan to exit markets. And much of that expansion will be done through new construction—about 40 percent of respondents said they would start new developments in 2013, up from 38 percent last year.

Transaction velocity, also, is poised to accelerate. Thirty-five percent of respondents plan to increase their acquisition efforts in 2013. And after several years of pessimism in the value-add space, the acq-rehab market seems to be picking up as well. About 31 percent of those surveyed plan to start new repositioning projects next year.

But as cap rates remain compressed in most markets, where can the best deals be found?

It turns out that South Florida is seen as the land of opportunity for companies looking to invest in “challenged” assets. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed said the Sunshine State holds the most potential for upside among “distressed” markets. That’s up from 28 percent last year.

Just behind South Florida was Phoenix, with 16 percent, and Atlanta, with 14 percent. But for the most part, executives agree that the majority of these formerly distressed markets are performing better than anticipated.

“In most of the markets, with a few exceptions, the fundamentals have improved, capital has come back, and cap rates are down,” says Jay Hiemenz, CFO of Phoenix-based Alliance Residential. “The one exception to that, [but] where we still see a lot of upside, is Las Vegas. We’ve been buying there, and we’ll continue to buy there.”

Hiemenz sees the fundamentals of the Vegas market starting to turn around, though the area is still largely shunned by institutional investors. So Alliance can still buy there at 80 percent to 85 percent of replacement costs.

Ernie Freedman, CFO of Denver-based REIT Aimco, agrees that “distress” is a term that rarely applies to the multifamily industry anymore. He says the bust in single-family ownership levels has led to an almost across-the-board burst for the apartment industry.

“Four years ago, when the world kind of blew up on us, everyone thought there would be some level of distress because of debt coming due, financing coming due, and a lot of the CMBS debt that was done five to 10 years ago coming due—and we just haven’t seen it,” says Freedman. “The capital markets have remained open, and lenders have been able to work with folks. In only very rare circumstances have people gotten themselves in a little bit of trouble and had to sell an asset.”

Show Me the Money

The availability of private and public equity is expected to remain on keel, as a whopping 84 percent of respondents believe that, looking ahead, private equity will be either more available or available at around the same level as this year.

David Gardner, CFO of Rochester, N.Y.–based Home Properties, says the picture is not entirely clear yet, but at least things should be a little less difficult than in past years. “Equity won’t necessarily be more available, but things should be a lot less painful than they were in 2011 and this year,” says Gardner.

Home Properties currently has $350 million invested in its acquisitions and development pipeline and has 1,100 new units under development. Gardner says he expects that number to reach 2,500 by the end of the year and plans to spend as much as $300 million on new acquisitions next year.

Aimco is even more bullish on the public equity markets looking forward. The company completed two $300 million–plus equity offerings during the second quarter. “There’s still a healthy appetite for people to be investing in the public REIT space,” says Freedman.

The survey also revealed that the most popular sources of debt are national and regional banks, which are used by 33 percent of participants. Just behind the banks are Fannie Mae (23 percent) and Freddie Mac (17 percent). But in terms of construction debt, the improving banking sector continues to eat into the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA’s) massive, and clearly unsustainable, market share: Just 17 percent of respondents plan to use an FHA new-construction loan next year, down from 24 percent last year.

Home Properties has circumvented the agencies, increasing its unsecured debt and unsecured private bonds. Home also upped its line of credit this year, from $175 million to $250 million, in anticipation of continued growth.

A Little Something Extra

Financial executives are always looking for new ways to supplement net operating income (NOI) by playing to the strengths of the assets they own and manage.

Gardner says that taking some risk with higher up-front costs on certain utility and amenity upgrades can pay off in the long run. “We’ve tried to control common-area electricity costs better,” Gardner says. “We worked with local utility companies to retrofit all our common-area lighting so it’s more efficient. So far, it’s given us a 15- to 20-month payback.”

In addition to common-area utilities, Home has been getting more income from administrative fees and has reduced its insurance deductible by adding fire extinguishers to each of its units.

The survey revealed that 41 percent of respondents cite passing utility costs on to residents as the leading strategy for supplementing NOI. Other leading strategies included using revenue management software (19 percent) and reselling cable and Internet (17 percent).

Freedman says Aimco is focused on higher occupancy and lower turnover to boost its income.

“Our turnover runs at about 45 percent, while most of our peers in the public space run closer to 55 percent,” he says. This focus on retention results in much lower turnover costs, all told.

Opportunities Abound

In an overwhelming majority, multifamily finance executives believe both cap rates and interest rates will remain flat or fall even lower next year. About 77 percent see cap rates either flattening or dropping farther next year, while 75 percent see the same for interest rates.

Still, this falling-rate environment can’t last forever.

“I can see both of those figures slightly up following the election and into 2013,” says Hiemenz. “I think values will remain fundamentally unchanged, with a slight uptick in both rates being offset by growth in fundamentals.”

Hiemenz believes the industry is on track for continued success because the multifamily sector isn’t really competing with other classes of real estate for land in core markets. He believes we’re still early on in what promises to be a long development cycle and that now is a good time to take some bets, notwithstanding finding the right price.

And more growth is expected on the horizon, driven by both junior and senior renters. The survey shows that CFOs have specific demographics in mind as they push for market expansion. The most watched trends moving forward are smaller units for Gen Y and the growth of seniors housing to accommodate a massive aging Baby Boomer population.

Indeed, good times look to be here for a while yet. MFE