Tapping into the student niche

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am

A record number of international students are coming to Australia, and they all have to live somewhere.

With many Hongkongers flush with funds thanks to the city's robust economy, investing in student accommodation might seem tempting. Built close to campuses, these small apartments or studios fall into the lower price range and typically seem attractive to entry level investors - known as 'mum and dad' investors - who are often parents seeking to secure accommodation for their own student children.

In March there were almost 300,000 full-fee international students enrolled in Australia - a 12.5 per cent increase on the same period last year. Hong Kong students make up 5.1 per cent (or 15,983), while students from the mainland account for 71,898 (24.1 per cent) of the total international enrolment.

Melbourne developer Anton Wilson said he could not keep up with demand driven mainly by overseas students. Mr Wilson's company, Mider, has developed offices, flats and town houses, but in the past four years has specialised in student accommodation to address a chronic shortage.

'From a commercial point of view, I could see an untapped market,' he said. 'Thousands of [prospective] tenants are lining up to move in and we're seeing many more buyers prepared to invest.'

Student apartments cost about half that of regular apartments in the city and produced a steady income, said Mr Wilson, citing returns of 6 to 7 per cent gross.

Tenants take the property on a 12-month lease, so even if students go home for holidays they (or their parents) must still pay the rent. And vacancy rates were zero, Mr Wilson said.

'I have one building in Carlton with 83 apartments, which I could have rented out three times over,' he said.

'And I have another building in Elizabeth Street, near the Latrobe University campus, which is booked out already - and it's not even built yet.'

International students also made excellent tenants, Mr Wilson added. 'They are dedicated to their studies and keep their flats in very good condition.'

David Bojan, managing director of Horwath Financial Services in Hong Kong, which advises clients on investment decisions, said that student housing was an opportunity for the private sector. But he said that students' expectations had increased in recent years and the building had to be up to par.

'They are now demanding better standards, modern, security rated housing, internet access in individual rooms, recreational facilities, parking and private en suite facilities - and they want their housing to be within walking distance of their university.'

While it might cost more to invest in a higher quality building, Mr Bojan said it was a price most Hong Kong parents were willing to pay to house their student children in a comfortable environment.

Critics argue that purpose-built student housing is too much of a niche investment. They say that the apartments are so small, who would want them should student demand fall away? Website www.which

property.com.au said that banks may recognise the limitations of this type of property, making investor finance harder to come by.

While demand is there and yields seemingly attractive, the website advises that rental returns do not constitute the entire return on investment equation.

'Solid capital growth is more important in the long-term creation of wealth,' an article on the website said.

Mr Wilson, however, said that the prospect of demand disappearing was hypothetical.

'Education was our third-largest export market last year. It has overtaken tourism to be a A$10 billion [HK$65.41 billion] market. The idea that demand would stop is about as likely as if Australia were to stop selling sheep.'

Going, going, gone

A selection of purpose-built student accommodation available in Australia.

MICASA8, 600 Swanston St, Melbourne

Developer Mider www.mider.com.au

One-bedroom flats average 235 sqft in this 13-level development between the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Melbourne University. Prices start from A$178,500 (HK$1.16 million) with a guaranteed rental return of 6.5 per cent. A full furniture package is included so the student only has to bring clothes. Each unit has a flat-screen TV with free international stations, high-speed internet access and CCTV security.

Details: Reapfield Property Consultants, peter@reapfield.com.sg or steven@reapfield.com.sg

Unisity at 200 Ballarat Rd, Footscray

Developer Paul Franze www.unisity.com.au

Only a few apartments remain in this development 800 metres from Melbourne's Victoria University. Prices start from A$139,000 with a guaranteed return of 7 per cent gross. Studio and two-bedroom apartments have kitchen/dining areas, high-speed internet access and some have private balconies. There are views of the city, river and park land, large common areas, and group and individual study spaces.

Details Nick Cartledge nick@avionproperties.com.au

Victoria Place, 117 Ballarat Rd, Footscray

Developer Romano Property Group www.romgroup.com.au

Due for settlement next year, it is 150 metres from Melbourne's Victoria University. It offers one or three-bedroom apartments that are larger than most complexes, each with an outdoor balcony, a modern kitchen, private bathroom, high-speed internet and multifunction telephone. A free furniture package includes washer, drier, LCD TV and DVD player. Prices start at A$159,500, and there is no stamp duty and no property management or corporate fees payable for the first year. The weekly return is A$186, or 6 per cent net.

Details Nick Cartledge nick@avionproperties.com.au