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The demand for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) is increasing due to the rising number of international and domestic students pursuing higher education.
This trend looks set to continue. In 2021, for instance, the government’s international education strategy announced plans to grow international student numbers to at least 600,000 by 2030.
With PBSA providing a reliable source of rental income, it can be a profitable area for both investors and developers – but not without careful consideration and planning.
There are readily-available businesses who will willingly exit the properties once they’ve been built. This provides an abundance of long-term investors, pension schemes and REITs (real estate investment trusts), who retain a keen interest in PBSA because of the annuity value and a regular constant income.
This double benefit of demand on one side and the exit on the other differentiates PBSA from trying to sell in a traditional residential accommodation development, where developers are under pressure to manage or sell individual units.
If you’re a property developers or investor thinking of entering this field, you need to be experienced – or have access to experience. It’s a big undertaking. Planning alone can take a couple of years so you’d need equity behind you that covers that.
As well as compliance issues, there are numerous tax considerations and legal matters to take into account. To stay on course, you need to be well informed and prepared.
In this report, you’ll get insights into the PBSA marketplace and the range of factors to consider before embarking on your project.
PBSA delivers undeniable benefits for students, such as guaranteed security and higher-quality living space. Usually taking the form of cluster flats or private studios, PBSA can offer fantastic leisure facilities such as fully equipped gyms, swimming pools, and games rooms.
Because of this, students – particularly international students – are more than happy to foot the bill for the experience. Much thought goes into the design of how the rooms work, how the kitchenettes work, and how the studios work. That must come through in the product, because students have the choice to live almost anywhere in their university town.
In many ways, PBSA is more than just bricks and mortar and much more than a temporary home for a year. Investors in PBSA are looking to take advantage of the demand that is driven by students choosing to relocate closer to leading universities and educational institutions throughout their time in higher education.
In terms of challenges, instability in the market is a big factor.
August and September 2022 are a case in point, when the Bank of England began its increasing of the base rate to help tackle inflation. Some developers who exchanged on large deals with interest rates and costs in mind will have seen those costs go up around 50%.
Things have settled back down but it won’t be as big a profit as they thought it would be. One of the benefits of the UK, though, is that it still has decent interest rates and a stable market, which makes investing in PBSA attractive.
What’s more, the success and potential of PBSA, how it’s structured and set up, provides opportunities to roll out the model post-student and across generations, from young professionals to retirees. Although the development of this model has had limited traction in the UK, it has succeeded in other European markets. The idea of taking people through their property and lifestyle lifecycle is yet another reason to consider getting into the PBSA space.
Overall, investing in PBSA development could prove to be a lucrative and wise investment choice.
It may sound obvious, but being in the right student town and developing the right product for that town is far more important for PBSA than for many other property developments.
The student market is arguably the most transparent of all the real estate markets. It’s surprisingly easy (for developers and investors) to establish what other purpose-built accommodation there is; what the mix of beds in those is – for instance, if they’re studios or clusters or five-bedroom apartments or four-bedroom apartments. They can also straightforwardly establish what is being charged for those units as well.
All of the big agency firms track the planning applications for PBSA. So, as an investor or developer looking at a different market, it can be quickly established whether there’s a lot of supply already or if there’s not enough.
If there’s not enough supply, interested parties can also work out what type of accommodation is missing, be they studios or apartment flats or three-bedroom cluster flats. This gives a unique advantage to those wanting to enter the market: they can tailor their scheme to what they have proved will be best received in that particular area. Such an advantage is rare in the often opaque world of property and real estate.
A lot of information is publicly available, such as the number of students in particular cities. Data is also published by HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency, now part of Jisc) about student numbers, where those students live, and how much of that is in university-provided accommodation.
So again, when developers and investors are looking into building this sort of accommodation, they can figure out the supply-demand much better than they can in a lot of other real estate.
Investors looking to passively back a developer must back the right student developers. That is less obvious than it sounds: many residential developers have become student accommodation developers without understanding what is needed to create a successful and sellable scheme.
This is why developers need to do their research, and investors need to be confident that the developers have done just that. Any developer can look at a spreadsheet and work out that if they build 1,000 flats in a certain location and charge £200 a week, they should make a £10m profit. But the skill as we’ve seen it in student accommodation is real.
The right student developer will demonstrate deep knowledge of what is required in a market and understanding the needs of your customers (i.e. the students). They go from uni to uni. They visit the accommodation, walk around and talk to real people. They analyse pricing and supply. Some of them send their kids (or other youngsters) to pretend to be looking for accommodation. They understand the amenity and quality of what is on offer and ensure they tailor their schemes to be relevant in the particular market. That’s one of the factors that separates adequate developers from exceptional ones.
Another factor to consider with PBSA is the extra pressure of getting it finished on time.
With a residential site, if developers want to build it in 12 months but it takes 14, the pain is short-term: they and their investors are paying more bank interest and they don’t have income for eight weeks, but that’s it.
Unlike many other asset classes, timings are key in student accommodation because there is generally only one intake a year – in September. Missing an intake can have significant effects. If there is no chance of receiving any income in an academic year, the double whammy of no income and additional interest on your development finance can lead to a significant hit.
That said, there are plenty of situations where very experienced developers miss Practical Completion. If they miss September but the academic year has started, but they think they can get it done by December, they may put students up in hotels or see if a sectional completion is an option. However, this combined with the potential compensation required can become a large expense.
Take an office building or an industrial unit. That office building will typically be let for anywhere from 3 to 10 years. There might be several different leases but there is an agreement to a lease or rental income with that tenant for the next 3, 4 or 5 years.
Yes, there will be rent reviews, but typically those are just open market i.e., the tenant is paying £50,000 a year and in three years it is agreed that the rent should go up to £55,000. Some leases have RPI indexation but it’s very common for that RPI indexation to be capped and collared i.e. if RPI rises to 10% there will only be 4% rental inflation.
Residential and student accommodation assets offer inflation-linked annual uplifts, which is a potentially hugely attractive feature in the current environment.
Across the board, yields have increased, which means values have fallen. Residential and student accommodation are the two asset classes that have seen the least reduction in value proportional to interest rates.
Student accommodation and PBSA in particular have likewise benefited from the fact that it is still a relatively nascent industry and there is still an undersupply of PBSA accommodation assets in the UK.
A very important favourable tax treatment is stamp duty land tax (SDLT). A traditional hall of residence is treated as non-residential property which means the SDLT rate is normally about 5%. More modern cluster flat-type student accommodation is treated as residential. However, unlike for certain PBSA, the 3% surcharge does not apply.
Where more than one dwelling is acquired, the SDLT can be based on the average price of the dwellings acquired. Normally the minimum rate of SDLT here is 3%, but for PBSA it can be 1%, the lowest SDLT rate for any asset class.
With the UK no longer a member of the EU, the UK can treat EU and other non-UK nationals differently. For SDLT, a 2% surcharge now applies to non-residents and certain UK companies owned by non-UK residents. However, this surcharge does not apply to PBSA.
PBSA also enjoys a privileged capital gains tax (CGT) treatment. The normal CGT rate for residential property is 28%. However, PBSA is treated as non-residential if certain conditions are met, and the CGT rate is 20%.
To qualify the PBSA, the building must:
Another favourable tax treatment is Inheritance Tax (IHT). A non-UK domiciled individual is usually subject to IHT only on their UK assets. By holding UK assets in a non-UK company, a non-dom can normally escape IHT. This is no longer the case for UK residential property: however a residential property is wrapped up, the non-dom will be within the scope of IHT in respect of it.
The good news is that PBSA is not counted as residential property for this purpose. The definition is the same as the one used for CGT.
When structuring PBSA acquisitions, investors have to choose whether to invest personally, through a ‘tax transparent vehicle’ such as a partnership or LLP, or through a company. This is beyond the scope of this report, but the choice follows much the same pattern as for general residential investments and you can find more information below and in our previous article here. For the most up-to-date guidance, please contact us.
If a company is to be used, the investor must decide whether it should be a UK or non-UK company. Although historically there have been considerable advantages in buying UK property in a non-UK company, these have been largely whittled away by successive changes in legislation, so non-residents are subject to UK CGT in much the same way as UK residents. As noted above there can still be an IHT benefit, and some other limited benefits remain.
For developers, a key point is that the favourable tax treatment for PBSA should, in theory at least, mean that an investor is prepared to pay more for a PBSA building than a normal residential building generating the same rents (subject to adjustment for perceived differing risk).
Developers of PBSA will be taxed on their profits in much the same way as general residential developers. Another benefit of PBSA is that very large developers of residential property can be subject to the Residential Property Development Tax surcharge of 4%, but there is an exclusion for PBSA.
Where new-build student dwellings are developed for sale, the developer does not normally have to add VAT to the sale price but is nevertheless able to recover the input VAT it suffers (apart from certain blocked items). However, if the developer is building the PBSA to let out, rent is exempt for VAT purposes and doesn’t give rise to any right to recover input VAT. A strategy widely used to enable VAT recovery is for the developer to transfer the property or grant a lease internally, for example to a subsidiary.
In general, the VAT position for student accommodation that is configured as separate dwellings (as opposed to a hall of residence) is much the same as for other residential accommodation. However, to qualify as a dwelling for VAT purposes, certain conditions must be met – for example, that the dwelling is not subject to any restriction on its separate use and disposal. This can mean that some PBSA doesn’t qualify as dwellings for VAT purposes.
A PBSA building that doesn’t qualify as dwellings may still qualify as Relevant Residential Property (RRP). This is a VAT term that encompasses certain communal accommodation buildings used as the home of people that live there.
If the building qualifies as RRP, the same VAT treatment can be obtained. However, there are more conditions around RRP and the developer may have to obtain certificates from the buyer stating the intended use of the building.
Developers need to consider energy-efficient building designs, reduce carbon footprints and minimise energy bills for residents. The selection of construction materials should consider environmental impact, waste reduction, and recycling.
Developers can develop systems within PBSA properties to reduce water usage, recycle water and deal with waste more sustainably. PBSA can provide a safe and secure environment for students. Developers should consider the location of properties, accessibility, and public transport links. Following the examples of businesses across many sectors, developers can ensure that their projects align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and commit to clear ESG reporting and communication.
If developers create biodiversity loss from what they are proposing to build, they have to address that with a robust plan to replace biodiversity habitats in the location.
Overall, there is a growing trend for investors to seek more sustainable assets, and developers need to consider ESG factors within their decision-making processes. ESG issues are becoming an increasingly important consideration for developers of PBSA, especially given the demand that students have for eco-friendly living spaces.
By balancing the ESG factors in their planning and design stages, developers can create properties that meet the needs of students, investors and the wider community.
Even though developers may be ticking ESG boxes now, they’ve also got to ensure that they are future-proofing that in 15 years.
The cost of maintaining a building is around 10 times the cost of building it. These are factors that are, sometimes literally, set in stone at the point that you build it. So you must plan upfront for the lifecycle of the building.
Changing practices now reduces cost, lowers maintenance costs and empty construction costs, and stops the building from suddenly falling foul of legislation because it’s already thinking about being circular from the beginning.
At the moment, we don’t build the value of a sustainable building into the valuation practices. We don’t ask how much it’s going to cost to maintain this building or whether it’s going to become a stranded asset. If that happens, the costs outweigh the benefits and no one will want to invest or indeed live there. What are the hidden aspects of ESG that are not captured at the moment in the valuation process?
A green building is both a necessity and a selling point but there is already talk about the fact that if, in five years, a building doesn’t have an ESG plan attached to it, it won’t be able to get any funding at all. It’s therefore essential to be factoring a current understanding of ESG into your PBSA planning process.
Outlined below are a number of legal issues and considerations that UK investors and developers of PBSA need to be aware of:
Overall, UK investors and developers of PBSA need to navigate complex legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure that their projects are successful and compliant. You should seek legal advice and guidance to ensure that you understand all of the legal issues and considerations that apply to your project.
The information on this page is intended for guidance only. It is based upon our understanding of current legislation and is correct at the time of writing. No liability is accepted by Berg Kaprow Lewis LLP for actions taken in reliance upon the information given and it is recommended that appropriate professional advice should be taken.