Average rents across England and Wales have risen 1.5% in the past year, to stand at £745 per month in December.
However, this annual rise is half that of a year ago. By comparison, rents increased by 3.2% in the year to December 2012.
On a monthly basis, rents have seen a seasonal drop. The average rent across England and Wales fell by 1.0% (or approximately £8) between November and December.
Despite a winter slowdown, December witnessed annual growth in lettings activity. The number of new tenancies agreed across England and Wales increased by 7.7% compared to December 2012. However, on a monthly basis there were 12.7% fewer new lettings than in November.
David Brown, commercial director of LSL Property Services, said: “Very gradually, the clouds are clearing for tenants. Households have suffered from the most painful recession in living memory, but it’s clear we’re now coming out the other side.
“By investing heavily in the supply of more homes to rent landlords have played a pivotal role. Now it remains for the rest of the economy to lift real earnings, and by so doing, lift even more households out of trouble.
“But prospects look good. Early indications show wage expectations are starting to look up – and general inflation is under control again.
“If this can take hold, more prosperous tenants will make for a more prosperous private rented sector in 2014.”
Seven out of ten regions saw rents fall on a monthly basis between November and December, in line with a monthly fall across England and Wales as a whole.
The sharpest monthly drop was found in the South East, with rents down 2.0% since November. This was followed by a fall of 1.9% in both London and Wales.
However, the North East and West Midlands experienced rent rises on a monthly basis – up by 1.5% and 1.4% respectively. Rents in the South West also rose slightly on a monthly basis, up by 0.7% between November and December.
On an annual basis, London saw the steepest rent rises, up 4.0% from December 2012 (or £44 in absolute terms). This was followed by a 3.2% annual increase in the South West, and a 2.5% rise in the South East.
However, some regions experienced annual falls. Rents in the East of England fell the most, down by 4.4% (or £33) over the last year. This was followed by a 2.7% annual drop in the West Midlands, and with rents in Yorkshire and the Humber 2.1% lower than in December 2012. Meanwhile, with zero annual change, rents in Wales have returned to the same level as twelve months ago.
Brown said: “The difficulties and frustrations of buying a home are far from uniform across Britain – or even from one town to the next. And the complexities of each local rental market reflect that.
“However, slower but sustainable annual rent rises are the order of the day in most areas. Local knowledge will be valuable, but improved affordability is good news for tenants and landlords alike.”
Gross yields on a typical rental property remained steady at 5.3% in December, consistent with the past three months. However, taking into account capital accumulation and void periods between tenants, total annual returns on an average rental property rose to 8.8% in December.
This compares to 8.3% in November – with the increase due to accelerating house price rises. In absolute terms this represents an average return of £14,372, with rental income of £8,189 and capital gain of £6,183.
If rental property prices continue to rise at the same pace as over the last three months, the average buy-to-let investor in England and Wales could expect to make a total annual return of 6.6% over the next 12 months, equivalent to £11,234 per property.
Brown added: “Steadier rent rises, and the usual seasonal dip over the winter shouldn’t put off anyone considering a buy-to-let investment.
“Returns have picked up considerably over the last six months, underpinned by solid rental yields and boosted by rejuvenated chances of capital appreciation.
“Rents will keep rising on an annual basis for the foreseeable future, while buy-to-let mortgages are still becoming more available and at more affordable rates.
“Supply of housing is still seriously restricted in the UK, so much-needed investment looks set to be handsomely rewarded as demand is driven further by an economic pick-up in 2014.”
Tenant finances suffered a setback in December, with the total amount of late rent across England and Wales reaching £330m, up £102m since November 2013. As a proportion, such tenant arrears now represent 9.7% of all rent, up from 6.6% in November, but still lower on a yearly basis than the 10.1% seen in December 2012.
Brown concluded: “While general inflation is back under control, and rents are rising even more slowly than this, household budgets have still been stretched and squeezed from every direction.
“The culprit is wages, which haven’t kept pace with the rising cost of living for years, and the underlying cause is the biggest economic storm for nearly a century.
“Landlords have invested heavily in new homes to rent, which has helped keep rent rises below inflation. But this can’t be relied on forever.
“A lack of house building could be the next serious crunch on the horizon, and this fundamental restriction on places to live needs even more attention.”