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More on the real estate development process


A few weeks ago I received the following comment from a reader:

Really enjoyed reading this post about being a real estate developer. I was just wondering if you could do a write up on the various jobs and functions in a typical real estate development company so that people like me, who intend to work for a developer can roughly know what kind of skills are required or demanded in order to work there.

It’s a great question and so I will try and answer it today. The first thing I should say though is that real estate developers are typically very lean on people. I’ve worked for big publicly traded real estate companies and small boutique ones, and the development teams are always fairly small.

It’s that way because development projects can be messy and intermittent. The industry itself is also prone to regular market cycles and so the strategy is generally to remain fairly lean and outsource a lot of the work. You ramp up consultants and suppliers on a per project basis – as you need them.

With that said, let’s talk about the typical development process and some of the key skill sets required. A simplified process might look like this:

  1. Buy development site (Acquisitions)
  2. Design a project (Consultant Coordination)
  3. Make sure project is feasible (Finance)
  4. Obtain approvals for said project (Planning & Approvals)
  5. Sell/lease space (Sales, Leasing & Marketing)
  6. Build project (Construction)
  7. Make money (The goal)

Depending on the size of the firm, one person may be responsible for managing many if not all of these steps, or they may be split up into different departments. So you could end up with a department list like this:

  1. Acquisitions
  2. Development/Project Management
  3. Finance
  4. Sales, Leasing & Marketing
  5. Construction

From my experience as a developer, you’re going to be involved in all aspects. And that’s part of what makes development so exciting. But let’s talk about some of the key areas:

Planning & Approvals

After tying up a winning development site, securing your approvals (commonly referred to as “entitlements” in the US) is usually the first major step. The reason this step exists is because oftentimes what you want or hope to build isn’t what you’re actually allowed to build as-of-right.

So you have to go through a process to make that happen. It can take years depending on where you might be doing business, but there’s typically a significant amount of value creation at this stage. Some developers only focus on this stage and don’t actually build.

City planning is a good background for this function. You need to understand the local planning policies and frameworks.

Consultant Coordination

As I mentioned before, development teams are often small. And that’s because all developers rely on outside consultants to make a project happen (architects, engineers, and so on). So a big part of being a strong developer is just being a strong project manager. The expression often thrown around the industry is that development is like herding cats.

Having some sort of a technical background helps for this function. You end up dealing with a lot of technical details (which I find super interesting), and so it helps to have a bit of a background or an interest. If you’re not inclined in this way, you might find this area boring.

Financial Modeling

Building project pro formas and managing budgets is obviously a key component of the development process. From the moment you first look at a site up until project completion, you’ll be building financial models and constantly refining them as you get more information. The first version might be on the back of a napkin and the last version might be a complex Excel spreadsheet.

Banking and finance is obviously a good background for this function. But you also need to understand the real estate business. Models are only as good as the information you feed it, so your assumptions have to be sound. 

Sales, Leasing & Marketing

I cannot over emphasize the importance of this function. If you are not selling units or leasing space, then you do not have a project. So no matter how amazing you might be at all the other functions (even fundraising from investors), if your firm is not bringing in money from your customers (purchasers or tenants), then you are dead.

When I was at Penn, a lot of the real estate professors used to tell us that leasing is the best way to get started in the industry. And I don’t disagree with that – even though I didn’t start there. This is often handled by a separate department and/or outside team, but you’ll need to be intimately involved.


If you’re at this stage, that’s usually a good sign. It usually means you’ve managed to sell a bunch of units and/or lease a bunch of space. Some developers (with enough scale) will have a construction team in-house, but many others will just outsource it to a 3rd party. Regardless of the setup, it once again helps to have a technical background.

If I missed anything or you want to add more detail, please let me know in the comment section below. I’m always happy to receive questions and post ideas, so feel free to tweet or email me. Tweets will almost always get a faster response.

Image: Flickr

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