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Build a Career in Real Estate Development

Build a Career in Real Estate Development

How would you like to be a government relations expert, prime negotiator and financial whiz? A real estate development career lets you do it all. Developers buy land, persuade zoning officials to grant permits, and manage the labor that builds a commercial or residential project, all while overseeing the budget and sales teams.

Commercial or Residential?

There are plenty of career choices in development, starting with choosing between the commercial or residential side of the business. The residential end tends to attract people focused on building homes and creating individual living environments, says Jim Reinhardsen, managing director of Heartland LLC and an advisory council member for the University of Washington's Commercial Real Estate Certificate program.

"The commercial end isn't less personal, but it's bigger," Reinhardsen says. "The numbers are bigger, the technical disciplines are more complex, and you find people thinking about the office itself less than the project as a whole. Retail attracts people who are sales-oriented and interested in commerce, the movement of goods and the space in which to do that effectively.

Once you've chosen one over the other, you'll still need a niche. If you're a relationship builder, consider becoming an acquisitions expert who generates property leads, negotiates purchase contracts and works with government officials before handing the property over to a project manager.

If you're more analytical, become an asset manager who handles budgets, forecasting, cash flow, accounting, operations, and long and short-term financing for developments. In general, the larger the firm, the more specialized your job. So if you need variety to be happy, choose a smaller firm.

While the money is generally bigger in commercial development, you'll likely earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year after five or more years' experience on either side of the business.

Breaking Ground

There are as many ways to enter this field as there are development types. If you're lucky enough to have some capital, you can start your own firm by buying distressed properties and renovating them for sale. If you don't have a college degree, you can sign on with a small developer and work your way up.

The surest road to success is to pursue one of the many undergraduate degrees in real estate. While you're working on your degree, you should gain practical experience through paid or unpaid internships, managing a property or even trying to do a few deals of your own. You could use those internships to try different niches in development, too.

Courses in technology will also help, because you'll need to know how to use spreadsheets, databases, graphical analysis and geographic information systems. Jobs that have honed your sales skills will impress employers once you finish your degree. Extracurricular activities that polish oral presentation skills, such as the debate club, will also be a plus.

First Jobs

After graduation, you could sign on with a large home builder, such as Toll Brothers, a Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, residential builder that annually puts about 30 recent college undergrads and MBAs into its Project Manager in Training Program. Toll Brothers recruits mostly at schools offering real estate programs, but the project-management program is open to anyone who wants to get into the home-building industry, explains recruiting manager Jay Lehman.

"We've hired attorneys who practiced for a year or two and CPAs who have been out there three years and wanted to get into real estate," he says. "It's a diverse group of people who have an entrepreneurial spirit." Imagine being a 23-year-old undergraduate who, two years later, is running a $10 million to $15 million luxury community on your own, overseeing a staff of 10 to 15 people.

Other entry-level positions for recent graduates include: assistant project manager, financial analyst, property accountant, research associate/analyst and zoning permit coordinator. Search Monster for current openings at Toll Brothers.

Mid-Career Transfers

If you're in a related field, such as engineering, and want to switch into real estate development, earning a master's degree in real estate development will smooth your transition. Schools such as the MIT Center for Real Estate enroll students with four to six years of work experience.

If you're already in the industry, an advanced degree will fuel your career growth and pump up your salary. The MIT Center's 2009 graduates posted median salaries of $100,000, and most students received two job offers.

A master's in real estate provides the same finance, management and economics knowledge you'd get from a broader-based MBA program, but also focuses intensely on real estate-related courses such as development and design. It's appropriate if you're sure you want to stay in real estate.

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