Yesterday I made a comment on Twitter about most people not understanding to what extent government bureaucracy inhibits the delivery of new housing in this city. It received a number of responses, including remarks about how development charges have also recently doubled and how this statement applies to pretty much every city out there. But there was also a comment about developers not being transparent and not properly explaining the impact to the public. In other words: please demystify the development pro forma. I thought that was a fair remark, and so this post is going to be a response to that comment.
Before I begin, it’s important to keep in mind that most developers have investors. These investors put up most of the money required for a project and in turn they take most of the profits. However, there is typically a “promote” in place, which is just an incentive structure that pays the developer more of the profits (disproportionate to the cash they invested in the project) if they perform and hit certain return benchmarks. All of this is to say that developers aren’t usually the ones holding all of the cash (which is what a lot of the public seems to think) and they are accountable to their investors to do what they said they would do.
Now let’s run through the costs that make up a “typical” development pro forma. For this example, I am going to assume that we’re talking about a 100,000 square foot mid-rise building; the kind that you might build and find along any one of Toronto’s Avenues. If we were doing this in real life, we would get more precise with the areas and consider gross construction area, gross floor area (city definition), and the net saleable/rentable areas. But to keep the math simple, we will ignore these differences. That’s the approach I’m going to take overall in the post. What you need to know, though, is that you have to pay to build the entire building, but you only get to collect revenue on a portion of it. That’s why the “efficiency” of a building matters.
The value of development land is a function of what you can build and the revenue you can ultimately collect. So location matters a great deal. Based on the latest high-density land report from Bullpen and Batory, the average price of an unzoned mid-rise site in the City of Toronto is about $231 psf. So let’s assume a land cost for our project of $23.1 million. Assuming we can get land financing at 60% of the value of the land (loan-to-value), that would mean we’re putting up $9.24 million of cash (plus a loan guarantee!) and borrowing $13.86 million to start our project. At 5.25% per annum (interest-only loan), our annual interest charges would be about $727,650. From now on forward, we’re going to pay ~$60k in additional interest charges for every month that our project is delayed. Buckle up.
You should now begin to see why time is so valuable and why government bureaucracy can be so frustrating. As a developer, you’re heavily incentivized to move things forward, whereas it can often feel like everyone around you is trying to deliberately erect roadblocks in order to slow you down and make your project more expensive to build. Oftentimes, it is because it is less risky for them to punt things down the road and not make a decision. That is not the case for us and our project.
Onto construction (or hard) costs. As many of you know, these have risen dramatically over the last 4 to 5 years. On some of our projects, we have added over $100 psf in hard costs alone. Part of this has to do with a busy construction market and part of this has to do with new building requirements: watertight undergrounds, new Green Standards, and so on. For our project, which is on the small side, let’s assume $360 psf for a total of $36 million. This would include our direct construction costs and our construction manager’s overhead (general conditions). We should also prepare for some of the trades to decline to bid on our project because it is too small and not worth their time.
Soft costs include everything from consultant costs and interest charges to government levies and management fees. Like everything in your pro forma, these absolutely need to be broken out line by line. Don’t be lazy here. But for the purposes of this simplistic example, we’re going to use 75% of hard costs, which works out to be $27 million (or $270 psf). When I first started out in the development business, the rule of thumb was closer to 25% of hard costs. But times have changed. Government fees, alone, can make up about 1/4 of the price of a new condo in Toronto.
Adding up all of these costs, we’re at $861 psf or $86.1 million in costs. It’s now time to consider the revenue side. $1,000 psf seems like a nice round number, so let’s start there and assume we’re going to sell our condos for that. Typically in Toronto, the price you pay is inclusive of HST, so that liability will need to be deducted from our revenue line. It’s not a straight 13% because of the new home rebate, but the rebate also hasn’t been properly indexed since it was introduced and so the liability could still be upwards of 10%. (This is worthy of a separate blog post.) The result is $900 psf in revenue and a margin on costs that is less than 5%. No sensible developer would want to do this project. One misstep (or development charge increase) and you’re dead.
So let’s increase our condo prices to $1,100 psf. Maybe that will work. In doing that, we get to a margin on costs that is nearly 15%. Okay, now we’re in the range. But let’s say we just got delayed by 6 months (boom, interest charges) and our hard costs turned out to be off by $15. They’re actually working out to be $375 psf because of some new tariff and because the formworkers in the city are all tied up on bigger projects and couldn’t give a shit about our cute little infill project. Now we’re offside again in terms of our margin on costs. No problem, let’s try and push condo prices a bit more. Is $1,150 achievable? Perhaps. But ideally, given the above, we would want to be at $1,200 psf just to be safe.
This is an overly simplistic example of the math that goes into a development pro forma. But hopefully it begins to show you (1) just how many moving parts there are in a development project and (2) the kind of pricing that is required in today’s cost environment. Developers are reacting to the costs that they are being thrown and it is creating upward pressure on home prices. (See related post: Cost-plus pricing.) So far there has been enough elasticity in the market to absorb these price increases, but that may not always be the case. If you have questions about this post or disagree with any of my assumptions, feel free to leave a searing comment below.