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Buy To Leave? M&G Warns Manchester Could Follow London As 'Dark Towers' Proliferate

Manchester after dark: the view from Piccadilly Station, platform 14

Manchester could follow London's example of dark, unoccupied "Buy to Leave" apartments, M&G Real Estate Head of Residential Investment Alex Greaves has warned.

Speaking at Bisnow's Manchester Build To Rent Boom event, Greaves said he feared Manchester apartments were being sold to absentee investors, and that this would result in empty residential schemes.

The so-called Buy to Leave crisis has been a growing political concern in London's prime residential markets, where investors buy apartments to park capital, and without an interest in rental income. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has promised action against unoccupied "ghost mansions" and "zombie apartments."

“The dynamics are changing fast in centre of town and you have to be careful what you’re investing in. It’s interesting to hear quite how much kit is being built in central Manchester. There’s the question about lights being out in London schemes, I fear the same for Manchester. I think it will happen. I think there are overseas investors who are not motivated by rental income, so we will see some lights out," Greaves said.

M&G are now completing their 135-unit Manchester joint venture BTR project with Mulberry.

“We think it's an attractive city and we like the fundamentals, but equally we have to hit our target returns,” Greaves said.

Capital & Centric founder Tim Heatley, M&G Real Estate Head of Residential Alex Greaves and Capita Real Estate Projects Director Beckie Joyce at Bisnow's Manchester BTR Boom event 2018.

Capita Real Estates Project Director Beckie Joyce, moderating the panel discussion, suggested pre-selling such a large proportion of the city's residential market into the Chinese market may be a risk.

"Have we created a rod for our own back by putting so much of the funding into one basket, into the overseas market? Are we at the whim of other continents' domestic policies?" she asked.

Capital & Centric founder Tim Heatley disagreed with the concern, but suggested market pressures could lead some developers to suffer. He said the market is already correcting the pricing of Manchester apartments, and this will deter Buy To Leave investors.

"Because of the way developers are forced to fund projects, it often means forward selling to investors prior to construction. As a result you end up with so much of it focusing on being sold to investors who plan to rent it out. That’s great, we need lots of it, we’ll need more of it — but the market will probably peak. There will be a couple of years when there is too much kit, and that's not a bad thing because it will bring values down," he said.

Anybody home? The lights are out

"There’s huge supply [of private rented apartments] in Manchester, which tempers my enthusiasm a little. We’re hanging in to sell our apartments to owner occupiers at completion, but you sometimes think you could sell them all in advance to overseas investors and then get a good night’s sleep," Heatley said.

"But what is good and I’m encouraged about is that a lot of [planning consents for new apartments] haven’t commenced on-site. People are saying they might hang back, might not press the button, and that tempers supply a little bit."

Heatley is also comforted by conversations with big institutions and investment funds that say they might step away from Manchester for a bit because the city may be overheating a bit. That is a sign the market is already correcting and that existing product will have a chance to let or sell.

Pressed on the prospect of empty Buy to Leave apartments in Manchester towers, newly appointed Manchester City Council Director of Housing and Residential Growth Jon Sawyer stressed the council's plans for new affordable housing.

"I can’t comment on London but the starting point is that Manchester is an economic machine, it’s a place that people want to work and need homes, and they want them as close to the centre as they can afford. What we don’t want is housing to be a break on our economy," Sawyer said.

More coverage of the Manchester Build To Rent Boom event follows later this week.