By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times business reporter
Last April, amid the region’s tightest housing supply in a decade, a Wall Street-backed company stormed into the Seattle metro area and bought, on average, 10 homes a day.
Invitation Homes, a subsidiary of investment giant The Blackstone Group, purchased the homes from banks, foreclosure auctions or individual sellers, and turned them into rentals. Often buying entry-level homes under $300,000, it almost always paid cash.
“Cash is king,” said Bob Papke, a RE/MAX real-estate agent in Sammamish. “Your first-time buyer who’s scrambling to get their down payment together is going to get trumped by the investor.”
By year’s end, Blackstone’s Invitation Homes had hoovered up at least 1,585 single-family homes here, according to market researcher RealtyTrac . Nationwide, Blackstone says it has spent $8 billion amassing a portfolio of 43,000 single-family homes.
Big companies such as Blackstone are a new force in the single-family home market, offering more ready cash than ordinary buyers and helping push up prices.
As homeowners from coast to coast wake up to learn they have a Wall Street fund as their neighbor, some are happy to see the houses spruced up and occupied. Others complain it’s hard to get the landlord to address problems that surface.
When Invitation Homes’ for-rent sign was posted in front of a house two doors down from hers in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood, homeowner Alex Alexander groaned.
“That rental, I fear, is going to be another group of kids who will change the character of the neighborhood,” she said.
Over the past two years, institutional investors such as Invitation Homes, Pretium Partners and American Homes 4 Rent have spent more than $20 billion to acquire 130,000 U.S. homes destined to become rentals, according to investment banking firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Locally, about half of the homes bought by Invitation Homes and Pretium Partners last year were in King and Snohomish counties, according to data from RealtyTrac. Pierce County, where home values fell the most in the metro area, has also been a focus for all three firms.
And they haven’t let up: In January, Invitation Homes bought at least 55 homes, RealtyTrac said. Private-equity fund Pretium, formerly called Fundamental REO, was next with 52 homes.
The buying spree has potentially far-reaching consequences.
In a market already low on inventory, big investor purchases could artificially pump up home prices, said Yale economist Robert Shiller, whose book “Irrational Exuberance” warned in 2005 of a national housing bubble.
“I don’t quite understand why the housing market shot up so much in the last year when expectations didn’t go up, at least not among homebuyers,” he said.
The big investors also take out of circulation houses priced for the lower rungs on the economic ladder.
“Obviously that makes it harder for the first-time homebuyer, as if they didn’t have enough challenges already,” said Glenn Crellin, associate director of research at the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies.
Window of opportunity
Owning a home isn’t as popular or feasible as it once was: Since 2004, the homeownership rate among younger households has plunged. Stagnant income growth, high levels of student-loan debt and tighter lending policies — not to mention bad memories of the housing bust — all could push more households toward renting homes, analysts say.
Major investors — defined as buyers who acquired 10 or more homes in a year — overall made at least 7 percent of all single-family home purchases in the Seattle metro area in 2013, RealtyTrac estimates. They bought about 3,100 single-family homes, five times more than the previous year. They were most active from April to September, the peak time of year for regular homebuyers.
The big buyers are targeting three-bedroom homes in middle-class neighborhoods. About half the homes they bought in the metro area were in foreclosure or owned by a bank, according to RealtyTrac.
Blackstone, a global private-equity and investment-advisory firm with $6.6 billion in revenues last year, is the largest of the big buyers, both in the Seattle metro area and nationally.
To the new Wall Street homebuyers, their business model is an innovation that serves families who don’t qualify for mortgages or want the hassles of homeownership.
“We don’t have any plans to sell the homes we own,” said Andrew Gallina, a spokesman for Dallas-based Invitation Homes. “We’re creating a new industry. We’re professionalizing the single-family home-rental market in a way that’s not been done before.”
The big buyers operate on an unprecedented scale.
American Homes 4 Rent, a California-based investor in single-family homes that raised $887 million in an August stock offering, said in a recent regulatory filing that it screens about 50,000 homes a month. It takes American Homes just 20 days to buy a house, 72 days to renovate it and 30 days to rent it out.
Jon Dillingham, a Kirkland mortgage banker, was impressed by how fast Invitation moved last March when buying a three-bedroom rental he and a partner owned in Auburn for $225,000.
“They didn’t even look at it. They just bought it,” he said. “These guys came rolling into town with cash and we were done.”
And Wall Street appears prepared to lend the big investors more money to keep buying.
Last fall, Invitation Homes raised $479 million in a bond offering — the first rated bonds ever backed by the rents and value of single-family homes.
After that “watershed event,” said Jade Rahmani, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods (KBW), Wall Street could pour $20 billion a year for the next three or four years into bonds to finance the acquisition of single-family rental homes.
Buy it, fix it, rent it
Along a tree-lined avenue in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood, million-dollar homes sit across the road from starter homes — one of which Invitation Homes recently put up for rent at $2,395 a month.
Last March, Darrell McManus and his wife had listed that house for $350,000. Their first deal with a buyer collapsed after inspection.
Then came Invitation Homes with an offer of $343,500, about $5,000 lower than the first buyer, McManus said.
“It was an all-cash offer,” he said. “We had a close in two weeks.”
Invitation Homes replaced the roof and windows, installed new fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom, and tore down a dilapidated backyard shed.
Nationally, it costs Invitation Homes an average $150,000 to buy a house and then $21,000 to renovate it, according to research firm Morningstar Credit Ratings. The average home is 25 years old.
Marsha Weese, McManus’ former neighbor in Broadview, sold her home last year to a different kind of buyer: a first-time homeowner who’s organizing neighbors to lobby the city for speed bumps on the busy avenue.
Weese said it’s unfortunate that more homes on the street are becoming rentals. But big national landlords aren’t the only ones raising her ire.
She and her fellow neighbors had petitioned city officials in 2012 to do something about an overgrown and abandoned house on the corner that was infested with rats and possums.
A local real-estate investor bought the eyesore last May at auction to demolish it and build a new single-family home. Nearly a year later, the eyesore remains.
“It’s my assumption an investor with a rental property is going to spend minimal time and energy to keep it up,” Weese said.
Invitation Homes says it’s the exact opposite of a slumlord. The 1,600-employee company has more than 100 employees in Bellevue.
“We really feel like we’re filling the void with high quality, well maintained, professionally managed homes,” said spokesman Gallina. “You’ll almost always find that we’re the nicest house on the street.”
But some neighbors say the company turns a blind eye to their concerns.
Renton resident Sally Brady said Invitation Homes has refused to do anything about a four-bedroom house it’s renting to a large number of apparently unrelated tenants — which would break the homeowners association’s rules.
Seven cars are parked on the street outside the house, Brady said, and sometimes block mailboxes.
“The cars are broken-down, some with flat tires and some jacked up as if they are being worked on,” Brady said. “Invitation Homes clearly does not care. They told us it was our problem, that if we want to have the tenants’ cars towed, to do so.”
Invitation Homes says its leases bar tenants from subleasing rooms and the company follows all applicable housing laws. It wouldn’t comment specifically on the Renton house.
The company also has occasionally run afoul of cities for failing to maintain yards and obtain permits for renovations.
Tacoma, for instance, found 18 violations at Invitation Homes’ properties last year, typically for overgrown grass or trees, or stray garbage piles. Invitation Homes says its tenants are responsible for lawns.
And last September, the Pierce County city of Bonney Lake found a contractor for Invitation Homes was trying to connect a house to the city sewer system without a permit, said public-works director Daniel Grigsby.
Six weeks later, he said, the company paid for the $6,800 permit and resumed work.
Bonney Lake resident Lori Diamond, who first alerted the city to the contractor work next door, said she was suspicious because the contractor’s van was unmarked.
“It looked to me like they were using Craigslist people,” Diamond said.
She’s worried about the impact the fast-growing company could have on neighborhoods.
“They seem like the heroes on the surface, don’t they?” Diamond said. “My biggest concern is you’re dealing with a company that you can’t reach.”
Invitation Homes spokesman Gallina said the company has 22 employees in the Seattle market whose job is to inspect renovated homes and assure they meet its quality standards. Moreover, he said, the company requires its general contractors to obtain necessary permits for all repair work.
“I think it’s a challenge when you’re giving birth to a new industry, that people can be negative towards change,” Gallina said. “This is no different from back in the 1970s and 1980s when they were professionalizing apartment buildings: Apartment buildings were being purchased and bundled together into real-estate investment trusts.”
Big buyers’ impact
Experts disagree on what the big buyers’ presence means for the housing market.
“I see nothing negative about it,” said Susan Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
These big investors are taking over distressed properties that otherwise might be a drag on a neighborhood’s property values, she said. Moreover, they’re transforming an inefficient rental business.
“It’s helping to heal our housing market quickly,” she said.
If big investors continue to raise money easily and cheaply from bonds backed by single-family rentals, that may create “a paradigm shift in the U.S. housing market,” KBW’s Rahmani said.
“Over the long run, we believe this should lead to higher home prices and improved neighborhood quality, particularly at the low end of the market,” he said.
Regular homebuyers, however, may be hurt because “investor demand for rental properties could further raise both home prices and rents.”
Shiller, the Yale economist, said the big investors are serving a real demand from some renters. But the economics may not be sustainable because converting single-family homes to rentals and managing them is costly.
“The real problem for home prices is that detached, dispersed single-family homes are not designed to be rentals,” Shiller said.
To be sure, the big investors deserve credit for putting a floor under home prices and helping the market recover, said Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac’s vice president.
“For the long-term health of the market we want to see the pendulum swing back to more potential first-time homebuyers being able to buy these homes, rather than just rent them,” he said.
“This could just represent a shift away from a homeownership-dominated society to more of a renter-dominated society, and that in itself is maybe not a bad thing. But it does take away from one of the primary means that many Americans have to build wealth.”
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @sbhatt
Over the past two years, corporate investors have bought thousands of single-family homes in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties and turned them into rentals. These are three of the most active:
Invitation Homes: Dallas-based subsidiary of The Blackstone Group bought at least 1,585 homes in the tri-county area last year, up from 32 in 2012. Has spent $8 billion buying about 43,000 homes nationwide.
Pretium Partners: The New York-based firm, formerly called Fundamental REO, bought at least 272 local homes last year. Founded by a former Goldman Sachs executive who oversaw his bank’s bet against subprime mortgages.
American Homes 4 Rent: The Agoura Hills, Calif., company acquired 188 homes last year in the region, compared with 25 in 2012. Nationwide it owns about 21,000.
Sources: RealtyTrac, Seattle Times staff research, Bloomberg News
Top ZIP codes for investors buying 10 or more homes in a year
In the Seattle metro area, here are the top ZIP codes that accounted for the highest share of big investors’ single-family home purchases since 2012, along with the city they overlap.
• King County: 98030 (Kent), 98023 (Federal Way) and 98288 (Skykomish)
• Snohomish: 98270 (Marysville), 98205 (Everett) and 98087 (Lynnwood)
• Pierce: 98402 (Tacoma), 98558 (McKenna) and 98446 (Tacoma)
• Biggest change: Two ZIP codes in the Kent area saw huge investor activity — 98030 and 98042.
Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
This home at 14014 Third Ave. N.W. in Seattle is for rent by Invitation Homes, one of the companies that is purchasing houses in the region and turning them into rental properties. Residents worry rentals will change the character of a neighborhood.