For investors who share the national obsession with owning property but are interested in more liquid forms of exposure, there are many equity options available ranging from housebuilders to the property management companies that rent them out. One of the more interesting options is hybrid online estate agent Purplebricks (LSE: PURP). Its combination of low, flat fees and self-employed agents to assist home sellers has been a hit with the public since launching in 2014. With average fees of £1,080 compared to the £4,000-plus average at traditional bricks and mortar estate agents, it’s little surprise.
The last trading update before the company’s annual results showed revenue for the year jumping 445% to £18.5m. Recruiting the ‘local property experts’ who help customers price their home and set up viewings has also gone well, with the total number increasing to 205 at the end of April. However, it’s early days for Purplebricks and the company still posted a £6.4m loss for the first half of the year as marketing spend increased significantly. I’ll be watching annual results closely when they’re posted in mid-June, but buying a lossmaking company before it’s even released a full annual report is a step too far right now.
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The traditional way of gaining exposure to property through equities has been Real Estate Investment Trusts, which pay out most of their earnings in dividends to save on tax. One REIT with an intriguing business model is Tritax Big Box (LSE: BBOX). It focuses on the large, out-of-town distribution warehouses that companies from Argos to Tesco rent to store goods for delivery to stores and, increasingly, straight to consumers’ homes via e-commerce.
Business has been booming for Tritax and it exceeded its target of 9% total annual return by a full 110% in 2015. This was not only due to rising dividends but also share prices rising as yield-hungry investors flocked to the growing big box sector. High demand for the space has been triggered by slow increases in total supply since the Financial Crisis and the rise of e-commerce driving increased need for distribution centres. This imbalance has sent shares up enough to trade at a pricey 20.7 times forward earnings. However, with a 4.7% yielding dividend and greater protection from an economic downturn than most REITs, Tritax is an interesting share to watch for the time being.
Another REIT with a niche is self-storage provider Big Yellow (LSE: BYG). The company has focused its development on London and the South East where the confluence of limited land availability, small houses and population growth necessitate self-storage facilities. Demand for these spaces is borne out in the company’s occupancy rate, which rose from 73.5% to 77.3% on a like-for-like basis over the past year.
Increased occupancy and expanded stores sent pre-tax profits soaring 69% year-on-year. Continued growth has filtered down to shareholders in the form of a 140% increase in dividend payments since 2011. Expansion potential, solid dividends and good management haven’t gone unnoticed and shares are now trading at 27 times forward earnings. Despite everything Big Yellow has going for it, this is a lofty valuation for a company that has to buy expensive inner-city real estate that takes years to develop in order to expand.