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Q&A - what is the difference between co-living and BTR?

Before the coronavirus hit, Build to Rent was without question the property market's fastest-growing trend. While, like all parts of the real estate sector, it has been significantly affected by Covid-19, it is expected to bounce back quicker than most thanks to its status as something of a safe haven for investors.

Realstar's UNCLE brand is one of the market's most high-profile operators. Here, we check in with Ryan Prince - vice chairman of the Realstar Group and founder of UNCLE - for his thoughts on how BTR will react to Covid, the differences between co-living and BTR, and where UNCLE plans to go in the next five years.

Tell us a bit more about how UNCLE came to be. Where did the name come from?

Frustrated by the lack of decent living accommodation in the UK, I established the UNCLE brand in 2017 to offer design-savvy apartments combined with a straight-talking, no-nonsense approach for renters who are tired of being treated like second-class citizens.

In just over two years since its launch, we now have five buildings across London and Manchester, operating at 98% occupancy and net promoter score of over 90%. The idea behind the name is that UNCLE is like your favourite uncle who always has your back - we want to take the 'lord' attitude out of the word 'landlord'.

How did Realstar get involved? Were they initial investors or did they purchase the brand at a later date?

We are owned and managed by the Realstar Group, a Canadian real estate investment and property management business with more than 40 years’ experience in the industry.

In Canada, Realstar is one of the most respected real estate companies owning over 25,000 apartments across the country. I co-founded the UK platform for the group in 2002, which has since invested in the primary healthcare, student accommodation, hotel and rental residential sectors, including co-ownership of 13,000 hotel rooms throughout the UK.

The firm’s strategy has been to target overlooked and misunderstood alternative asset classes such as the primary healthcare, hotel and rental residential sectors. Currently, Realstar UK owns over £1 billion of property, including successful student accommodation brands as well as UNCLE

How do you think the Build to Rent market will be affected by coronavirus?

Coronavirus is shaking up the whole industry, meaning we have had to adapt our services in order to offer our high standard of services safely and meet our residents’ needs. We have introduced short-term lets to help future and existing residents who are facing financial uncertainty, employment restriction, or those who have put first-time buying on hold.

We also believe that people will value their home more importantly than ever and expect to see more renters looking to invest in the spaces in which they have spent the most time over the last few months.

To offer our residents a better rental experience and spaces that they can enjoy from the outset, we have partnered with BoConcept, a beautiful Danish furniture manufacturer, to offer furnished apartments throughout our new Wembley location.  This will complement the designer spaces in our reception, meditation studio and extensive gym facility, and 3-point basketball court.

A house isn’t just a place to sleep any more – it’s your office, your social space, your exercise space, and more – so I predict people will be looking for a home that reflects this.

Will developments need to be designed with social distancing and enhanced hygiene protocols in mind moving forward?

In a Covid world, the safety element of rental offerings is clearly even more at the forefront of customers' minds and will be for the foreseeable future. Social distancing will play a big factor in our lives from now on.

We have introduced new contactless move-ins to minimise the risk, offering virtual tours and creating bespoke move in plans for residents as well as video tutorials to help our new residents settle in. 

What are the differences between co-living and Build to Rent? Or are they merely two sides of the same coin?

Co-living is really still in its nascency, so definitions are still a little fluid. Overall, though, co-living offers quite small private accommodation – either in the form of small studios (sometime as little as 11 square metres) or a bedroom with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. 

It then ‘makes’ up for the lack of personal private spaces with nicely done (and often extensive) shared spaces, wrapped in an ‘all-inclusive’ price. BTR offers ‘full size’ apartments with their own bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathrooms. 

In addition, it offers a range of communal amenities, such as gyms and co-working spaces. I would suggest that co-living is a good building for a three months to a year stay, but probably not longer than that. BTR could be a happy home for many years.

What would you say to critics who might suggest that UNCLE is only aimed at one demographic - that of wealthy young millennials?

Our neighbourhoods are made up of a diverse range of residents from all backgrounds, every single one of which makes up the unique UNCLE renting experience. Beyond the walls of our residences, it’s all about the community inside which we have built with trust and respect. We offer all our residents a unique, kinder rental experience, regardless of background. 

You've so far focused on slightly grittier, less glamorous locations, which have real character - has that been a deliberate choice?

We choose all our locations based on their own unique charm – each one offers a different renting experience. Our neighbourhoods each showcase a diverse and energic demographic, as well as great connections into London and a vivid local culture.

What is UNCLE's five-year plan?

UNCLE has committed a £1bn investment into the UK economy with BTR properties, and plan to double this in the next few years. We foresee the large-scale, branded residential sector as a key element to solving the housing crisis, as workers continue to move out of Central London and along Crossrail to find affordable housing and vibrant neighbourhoods.

Realstar aims to create over 20 UNCLE ‘neighbourhoods’ across London in the next few years, with thousands of residents from all backgrounds.

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