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 mid-sized markets that have seen rents grow rapidly through the pandemic have seen just modest increases this month.”

Sales

Kidder Mathews found that in 2020, many more apartment buildings on the Eastside were brought to market than sold — an effect of asking prices being based on in-place income in the 3.0 percent cap rate range, making a low return with little ability to raise rents.

Kidder Mathews noted that investing in apartment buildings on the Eastside isn’t very likely to reap major returns in the short-term: Per the report, fewer than 12 apartment buildings have sold each year on the Eastside for the past decade. Sales actually increased in 2020, though only slightly. Whereas year-end sales were at 11 in 2019, they stood at 12 in 2020.

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”); and 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. Generally, COVID didn’t stop investors from gravitating toward the Eastside as they would normally: The submarket had its highest number of sales in 2020 in the last four years.

“The year ended on a strong note of sales with cap rates not far off from previous years,” the report stated. “Pricing changes were variable across markets … and sales volume decreased 65 percent from 2020.”

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 median for a two-bedroom apartment was $2,102, though rent prices in general in Redmond fell 7.9 percent in the course of 2020. (Between March, the month state stay-at-home orders were put in place, and December, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment went from $2,397 to $2,088.) Two other Eastside cities followed closely behind as the area’s most expensive: Kirkland’s median two-bedroom price was $2,060, and Bellevue’s was $2,020, with little variance on a month-to-month basis.

Looking Ahead

When focusing on the Eastside specifically, the Kidder Mathews report stated that investors with long-term staying power — staying power that would make it easier to “weather the short-term low return of East King apartment investing” — might likely find rewards with above-market appreciation. The reason: constrained new supply and limited investment opportunities, the report stated.

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 wrote 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 that “a period of intense volatility in local rental markets may be nearing an end.”