College towns are attractive markets for investors in rental properties for several reasons. Students and faculty create large and dependable markets of tenants. Local economies dominated by academic institutions are remarkably stable compared to those based on manufacturing or agriculture. Larger universities create hundreds of non-academic jobs in research centers, medical facilities, and new companies spun off by technologies developed locally.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the main campus of the University of Michigan, is an excellent example of a campus-based economy that is much larger than its facility and student body. One out of three local jobs are in educational service, and an additional one out of ten are in technical, professional and scientific services. At $39,235, Ann Arbor’s average per capita income and its median family income of $102,615 are 20% to 30% higher than national averages.
WalletHub ranked Ann Arbor, the nation’s fifth-best college town and the best small city college town in 2020 based on academic, social, and economic opportunities for students. It also ranked Ann Arbor, the nation’s “most educated city in 2020,” outranking San Jose, California, and Washington, D.C. It also placed first in educational attainment and quality of education and attainment gap.
Affordability is Under Fire
Popularity can have a downside, and Ann Arbor is experiencing the price of success in rising housing costs and decreasing affordability, especially in Washtenaw County as a whole.
As of February 2020, the average monthly rent in Ann Arbor was $1,580 for an 882-square-foot apartment, a 3% increase over 2019, higher than the national median for a comparable apartment ($1,468) and considerably higher than nearby Detroit ($1,069) or East Lansing ($1,294), home of Michigan State University. Half of Ann Arbor tenants spend 30% or more of their household income on rent. HUD defines cost-burdened families as those “who pay more than 30% of their income for housing” and “may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.”
“Ann Arbor – and its central driver, the University of Michigan – is a magnet for highly educated households with upward mobility and significant disposable income. With some exceptions, Ypsilanti (City and Township) and their challenge of being overloaded by a disproportionate number of at-risk households and homes with negative equity – is where the most affordable options exist,” stated a 2015 Washtenaw County housing study.
“Ann Arbor will become more costly, and less affordable, especially to non-student renters in the short run and eventually, to aspiring buyers as well. The driver for higher costs is a combination of high livability and quality of life, great public schools, resulting in sustained demand by households with discretionary income, and resulting expectations of stable and continually rising property values,” the study concluded.
The Ann Arbor Rental Market is Vast and Profitable
In many ways, Ann Arbor is a great rental market. The massive student body drives demand. About 70% of the University of Michigan’s 46,000 students live off-campus and the current cap rate for Washtenaw County apartment buildings is a respectable 7.6%. (The capitalization rate is the ratio of rentals’ net operating income to property value. Low cap rates imply lower risk, and higher CAP rates indicate higher risk.)
Living off-campus is so popular; the university maintains web pages listing rentals and providing advice and information for off-campus renters. This summer initiated a “virtual housing fair” to help students find rentals for the 2020-2021 school year.
Homes.com lists 1,235 properties in Ann Arbor, with a median home value of $355,600, about 17% above the national median of $304,100 in July. Of the total homes in Ann Arbor listed on Homes.com, 60% are for sale, and 34% are rentals.
Though several new high-rise apartment buildings recently opened and more are under construction, single-family rentals still dominate the market. Homes.com lists more than 200 single family homes for rent in Ann Arbor. Smaller rental households are a result of the above-average presence of single-family rentals relative to apartments. The average household size for Ann Arbor rentals is 2.2 people, compared to 2.3 for Michigan and 2.5 for the nation as a whole.
COVID-19 and Ann Arbor, Michigan
COVID-19 delayed the University of Michigan’s plans for the fall semester but did not cancel fall apartment rentals. The university’s plans include both in-person and remote classes, a new academic calendar, and the elimination of breaks and changes centered around preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite the pandemic, Ann Arbor is still one of the best college town markets in the nation. As in most markets, acquisition is a challenge. Property prices in Ann Arbor are rising, and the smaller, less expensive homes that make ideal single-family rentals are few and far between. Otherwise, conditions are good for single-family rental owners and will improve as the nation returns to health.