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College Towns are Good Bets for Single-Family Rentals

A rental house located near a college campus may be a great investment—the list of places where investors earn the best yields on single-family rental houses is full of cities and towns with many college-aged residents, according to the latest analysis from data firm RealtyTrac.

“Many of the counties at the top of the list for strong rental yields are in college towns,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president for data firm RealtyTrac.

University students can provide a consistent source of demand for rental houses, pushing rents higher, which often leads to better yields for the houses’ owners. Across the country, giant corporations are busy building large, privately-owned student housing communities. But most students who live off-campus still live in single-family rental housing, according to student housing experts.

“The college student market can be very profitable, compared to non-college student markets,” says Peter Hurwitz, senior loan officer for Mortgage Master, a national mortgage lender specializing in residential home loans.

Student housing challenges

Student housing presents a unique set of challenges for property owners, starting with the academic year. Nearly all of the leasing activity happens in the months before the start of the fall semester, so that a vacant rental house is likely to have a hard time finding student residents after that. Student renters may also be interested in shorter, nine-month leases. In addition, renting to college kids typically comes with higher turnover rate and higher maintenance costs compared to regular renters, according to Blomquist.

Better investments in student housing

Housing markets with many college students tend to have much higher yields for single-family rental housing, according to an analysis by RealtyTrac, which identifies student housing markets as counties where Millennials make up more than a quarter of the local population.

“Many towns with many young residents have strong gross annual rental yields, averaging around 10 percent, including East Lansing, Mich., Gainesville, Fla. and Athens, Ga.,” says Blomquist. RealtyTrac estimates rental yields based on the “fair market” rents for three-bedroom rental housing set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the average home price figures from multiple listing services.

However, strong demand for rental housing is not always enough to make up for the high price of buying a single-family investment property. “Just being a college town does not guarantee single family rentals will be a good investment,” says Blomquist.

For example, in Arlington County, Va., 38.1 percent of the population is made up of young Millennials, including students attending Marymount University, George Mason University and a dozen other schools. But with the average price of a three-bedroom house at $705,000 in 2015, average rental yields for single-family houses were just 3.58 percent in 2015, according to RealtyTrac. Other expensive college towns like Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Boston all show rental yields of less than 5.00 percent, according to RealtyTrac.

Smaller cities can also suffer from the problem of high property prices. The gross annual rental yield in Orange County, N.C., in the Durham metro area, averages less than 5.00 percent. 

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