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Rents are at record highs — so why are private landlords fleeing the market?

A big jump in landlords selling up comes despite record rent levels - yet another sign of a broken market

A big rise in notices of termination issued to rental tenants has again raised the issue of private landlords selling up and leaving the market, intensifying the already significant shortage of properties on offer. On one side, landlords are clearly happy to sell following a strong recovery in prices. But why sell a relatively safe, income earning asset when other investment options generally either offer poor returns or are risky? Let’s look at what we know.

1. What is a notice of termination? The latest controversy follows publication of new data on notices of termination issued to tenants. A notice of termination of tenancy is served by a landlord on a tenant, giving them notice of the intention of the landlord to end the tenancy. Generally landlords must have one of four reasons to end the tenancy — they intend to sell the property, convert it to another use, move in themselves or allow a family member to do so, or they intend to substantially refurbish it.

The notice can also be triggered by a breach of tenant obligations, including rent arrears. In some cases these issues may be sorted out and the tenant may remain. Figures provided to Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin showed that the number of notices of termination issued, as registered with the Residential Tenancy Board (RTB), rose to 2,913 in the first six months of this year from 1,845 in the same period last year.

The lifting of the ban on evictions during Covid-19 was a key reason for this. But underlying it is a move by many private landlords to sell up.


2. How many landlords are selling their property? The RTB hasn’t got a breakdown yet of the second quarter figures but we can make a good guess. In recent quarters more than half — around 55 per cent — of notices have been due to planned property sales, This suggests that the notices of termination in the first six months reflect planned sales of around 1,900 rental properties. Some landlords own more than one property, so we don’t know exactly how many are involved here, but the anecdotal evidence is that most of those selling are smaller players with one or two properties.

Again based on recent trends, a further 550 or so properties may have been withdrawn from the market in the first half of the year as the landlord or a family member was going to live in them. While the family member could be paying a rent, many of these properties are effectively going off the rental market.

The trend of landlords getting out seems to have accelerated in the four of five years before the pandemic, with the number of private landlords falling from 175,250 in 2016 to 165,706 by the end of 2020. There was a huge surge in rental tenancies in the Celtic Tiger years, with huge private investment in property to rent out. This has now gone sharply into reverse. Large “professional” landlords, in contrast, are expanding but the very biggest ones still service a relatively small part of the market. Smaller private landlords — with one or two properties — provide around half of total tenancies.

After a hiatus during Covid-19, numbers leaving are now sharply on the rise again. Were the second half figures to mirror the first half of the year, some 3,800 rental properties could be sold off this year alone and another 1,000 plus withdrawn for family or personal use.

In very rough terms, we have seen a run rate of around 600 investment property sales a quarter in the years running up to 2020 rise to probably over 900 now — with very little new investment on the other side. Just 1,000 buy-to-let mortgages were taken out in 2021. Ireland’s biggest estate agency, Sherry FitzGerald, has said that it is seeing three landlords selling for every one rental property being bought, an acceleration in the trend which had seen a two to one ratio in recent years.

3. Why are they selling? An RTB survey taken in 2020 indicated that around one quarter of private landlords would consider selling in the next five years. This partly relates to a generally older age group of landlords — some are selling out to raise cash to fund retirement. And, with rising house prices and doubts about the economic outlook, we could speculate some have accelerated these plans. Some are also “accidental landlords” who have perhaps inherited property or got caught out when the property market turned after the financial crash and are selling now because they are no longer in negative equity.

While this is portrayed as “cashing in”, there must be other issues here. Why sell an asset which can generate a decent and secure return when it is difficult to find other homes for cash in risky financial markets?

The RTB 2020 survey gives some clues. A significant number of potential sellers said they just didn’t want to be a landlord any more — but of those who did state a reason, a lack of profitability from the venture, the tax on private landlords and the need to fund a pension were three of the highest.

Tightening regulation is also referred to by many in the sector. New legislation introduced in June tightens the rules and effectively means that, after six months living in a tenancy, the tenant will have a right to remain for an unlimited duration. The landlord thus needs formal grounds to end the tenancy — such as selling the property. Previously a tenancy could be ended after six years.

Landlords must also abide by rent pressure zone rules limiting annual rent rises. This can leave some landlords securing rents that are below the market level achieved by new landlords in the same area — creating a kind of dual market. Of course the flip side is that market levels can be unaffordable for many tenants.

The Tax Strategy Group Papers published this week point out that there are policy trade-offs here. The rent pressure zones were put in place to protect tenants from significant rises. But the limit on rental increases — and the division between those with sitting tenants and new landlords — does create distortions in the market. Meanwhile new regulations mean landlords have less flexibility. There are no “right” answers here — but there are consequences to policies which increase costs and regulations on tenants and on landlords.

Landlords also complain about tax treatment, with many paying at a marginal rate of over 50 per cent on rental income. The Tax Strategy papers outline a range of possible reform options here to reduce the tax burden on landlords, particularly in the early years when costs are high. Among those options is allowing rental losses to be written off again other income, increasing other tax deductions or changing capital gains tax rules, perhaps tied to a commitment to longer-term investment as a landlord. It seems that some action will be taken in the Budget, though what precisely remains unclear.

The final issue raised by landlords is difficulties when things go wrong. The RTB survey suggest that most have a good relationship with their tenants. However procedures to be followed to get possession of a property when tenants are not paying the rent due can take a significant time, according to some landlords.

4. Where is this going? There was a huge rush into the buy-to-let landlord market during the Celtic Tiger years — 28,000 buy-to-let mortgages were taken out in 2006 alone. Now many of those caught up in that frenzy are selling out along, it seems, with older landlords who own one or two properties. Both groups may struggle with compliance and regulation and feel the return on the other side is not worth it.

CSO figures show that, in 2019, half of all landlords earned less than €10,000 a year in net rental income ( this is rental income net of expenses allowable for tax ) and 80 per cent earned less than €20,000. Around 20 per cent of renters see it as their main occupation - not surprisingly the numbers are much higher for landlords owning multiple properties. Smaller renters typically have other income sources. *

We are now witnessing the departure of the bulk of accidental landlords and many of the one and two property operations. On the other side, we see the growth of the investment funds with the firepower and resources to cope with regulation and favourable tax treatment. The question is whether the middle ground landlord — those with three properties or more — can be kept in the market and encouraged to expand and whether the exit of smaller players can be slowed.

For now the market is sending a worrying message that, for many, being a landlord is not worth the hassle.

(* This paragraph was amended to remove a misleading comparison)

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