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How to Get Into Commercial Real Estate Development

[Updated: Nov 13, 2020] Oct 21, 2019 by Kayleigh Kulp
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Commercial real estate developers find properties and add value to them. They might be retail, office, or apartment buildings, or even subdivisions. They might fix them up or add new amenities, for example. These developers work on a large scale that requires a high degree of technical and practical knowledge.

The commercial real estate development business can be lucrative, but it can also be difficult. Especially if you’re new to it.

To illustrate the complexities, consider a couple examples.

Let’s say a developer finds a warehouse that's falling apart near a hip neighborhood in a medium-sized city. Because of its proximity to the city, he or she believes the warehouse would make a cool incubator for food-related startups. The warehouse is 12,000 square feet. It costs $500,000 to purchase, but it needs $1 million in improvements to make it suitable for tenants.

When the project is complete, the property will be worth $2.5 million. The developer can earn income by collecting rents from tenants, which he or she will find through a commercial broker. Along the way, the developer comes across zoning and regulatory hiccups that result in a lengthy due diligence and construction period of two years.

In another instance, a developer buys a 30-acre parcel of land for $10 million. He or she converts the zoning to accommodate 600 townhomes and hires architects, lawyers, and engineers to conduct feasibility studies. The developer hires a contractor to build those townhomes.

When they're complete, he or she sells them for $250,000 each. That results in $150 million in pre-construction revenue. After construction and selling expenses of $120 million, that's a $20 million profit.

Escrow, zoning conversion, permitting, and construction can take years. That’s not to mention the financial risk the developer takes on to get financing.

There are several ways to get into the commercial real estate development business. The best way for you depends on your skillset and willpower. In all commercial real estate development transactions, many players must work to make the deal happen.

Here are a few ways you can become one of those players:

Become a commercial real estate agent or broker

Commercial real estate agents make money on leases and sale transactions.

Commercial leases are often structured as triple net. That means that the tenant pays rent plus the owner’s property taxes, insurance, utilities, and maintenance costs. The leases are generally longer, sometimes 10 years or more, and the commercial agent’s commission is based on the total amount of the lease.

Take this scenario: A commercial broker secures a medical practice tenant for an office building. The rent will be $25,000 per year, and the lease is for 10 years, for a total value of $250,000. The commercial broker charges a 5% commission, which is $12,500. This commission may be split with the tenant’s broker, so each would receive $6,250.

In exchange, you might help your client negotiate their lease and navigate legal hurdles to get the tenant in the space.

Selling commercial real estate can earn bigger commissions than in residential real estate. But deals may take longer to close. If you sell a 20-unit apartment building for $2 million with a 5% commission rate, that’s a $100,000 commission split between you and the other party’s broker. It takes many years, hours of networking, and a lot of know-how to close these types of transactions. They're more complex and have long due-diligence periods.

Take the course and test required by your state or jurisdiction

Getting started with buying and selling commercial real estate takes more than just know-how. You need to be licensed in your local jurisdiction or state to practice real estate development.

There’s often a different license to become an agent or salesperson than there is to become a broker. The difference is that a broker can open his or her own shop without having a supervisor. A salesperson or agent must be affiliated with a brokerage, which acts as his or her supervisor.

Join local professional organizations

Once you’ve obtained the proper license for your jurisdiction, it’s time to join local professional organizations. These groups help you learn and network with professionals who can help you advance your career. Look into local real estate investing groups and your local association of realtors for potential clients.

Do a development deal yourself

You can learn the commercial real estate development business by doing a small project yourself.

To get a feel for all the parts of a development deal and process, you could fix and flip a single-family home. You’ll learn how to:

  • get a deal under contract,
  • run numbers for the current and after repair value (ARV),
  • estimate construction budgets,
  • manage contractors, and
  • obtain permits.

Then you could choose a small commercial conversion project. For example, maybe there's an old office space in your neighborhood that would make a good duplex. Get it under contract with a due-diligence period and many outs so you can get out of the deal if it's not feasible. Then work your way through the process to see if it’s something you can manage to hold or sell.

You can keep working your way up to bigger and bigger projects. That's how you meet contacts and learning about how it’s done. You'll also see what parts of the business you need to outsource.

Earn a certificate or advanced degree in real estate development or work for a firm

It’s also possible to get into the commercial real estate industry by working for a large developer or another company as an analyst, project manager, or associate developer. This is a good method for people who are interested in the work but don't want the financial risk of their own development project. You can get these sorts of jobs more easily if you get a certificate or degree in real estate development from an accredited school or university.

The Commercial Real Estate Development Association offers a certificate of advanced study in commercial real estate development. There are a few requirements, such as a current resume and application fee of $75 for members and $150 for nonmembers. The certificate costs about $3,000.

Bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, along with continuing education courses in real estate development, are available at universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and the University of Maryland, among many others. These can be a good springboard into commercial real estate development business.

There are many paths to an end goal

No matter your journey or path, you can start a career in real estate development. Even if you went to college for philosophy -- or didn’t go at all -- you can gain the experience needed to invest or work in the commercial real estate development business. You just need to work hard and pay your dues.

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