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3 risks that real estate developers face

Photograph 'Jailhouse Rock' by Michael Hill on 500px

‘Jailhouse Rock’ by Michael Hill on 500px

Real estate development is a risky game. So much so that some people in the business like to say that their primary function is to mitigate risk. 

Today I’m going to focus on 3 risks that developers face. There are, of course, others risks, but these are some of the biggest. Some people might also categorize them differently, but this is my simplified way of thinking about it.

The first risk is approvals. Oftentimes in development you need some sort of special permissions to build what you hope to build. These permissions come in many different forms, but whatever the case may be, there is risk associated with this part of the process. 

What happens if you’re not able to build what you were hoping to build? Is the project still feasible? Do you have a viable plan B? Did you budget for a redesign? Have you now overpaid for the land? There’s a lot of uncertainty in this phase and uncertainty generally means risk.

Assuming you’re able to obtain your entitlements (this is more of an American term), the next big risk factor is the market. Can you sell or lease out the space that you’re about to build and can you do it at the rates you were assuming when you acquired the site? 

In a bull market this isn’t usually a problem. In fact, prices and rents may actually exceed your early assumptions. But what if you bought the site in 2006 and now it’s 2008 and you’re hoping to go to market. Now you might be in trouble. In business school I learned to do sensitivity analyses and stress tests. How far does the market need to drop before I lose my shirt? Those are good exercises to do in development.

Assuming though that the market holds up and you’re able to pre-sell and/or pre-lease your new project and obtain financing, you would then be ready for construction – another big risk. This is why many developers bring construction in-house. It’s them trying to exercise more control over the process and mitigate risk.

Construction is messy both literally and figuratively. There’s a lot to consider. 

Are the drawings that you’re using to buy construction properly coordinated? Because if they’re not, you’re going to pay for it later. Is that Chinese curtain wall a great bargain or are you going to end up on a flight to China when it never shows up on your construction site? Are the trades hungry for work or are they busy? If it’s the latter, you’re going to get higher prices. And oftentimes there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re just buying construction at the wrong time.

But we all know that with risk there’s reward. So if weren’t for all these risks, real estate development just wouldn’t be the same. 

If you’re in the business, what keeps you up at night? Did I miss something? Let us all know in the comment section below.

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