Commercial Real Estate, A Career – How Do You Get Into It?

1. WHAT IS IT AND HOW DO YOU GET INTO IT?

Several years ago, I was attending a Society of Industrial Realtors Annual Spring Conference in Maui. My wife had accompanied me on the trip so that we could also do a lot of sightseeing. Colliers International, a 241 office worldwide firm, sponsored its own company cocktail party the night before the Conference officially began and my wife and I attended the party.

A short while into introductions, a fellow came in from the golf course and he sat down at our table. Andrew Friedlander introduced himself an we discussed our home in Philadelphia, his original home in Brooklyn and his new home in Honolulu. As to how he ended up in Hawaii, Andrew told us that on R&R during his tours in the Army in Vietnam, he decided to take a break in Hawaii after he was finished his last duty tour. He rented an apartment, waited tables, washed cars, etc. to have some extra cash. He said that he paid his apartment rent to an older man who came around once a month and he finally asked the man whether that was his business. Andrew said that he never thought about property management as a business, but the more he spoke to the man the more that he realized how diverse a business commercial real estate could be, particularly in Hawaii. The rental agent began to show Andrew the basics of the business and Andrew decided not to return to Brooklyn.

Forty years later, Andrew is the manager of approximately six Colliers International offices in Hawaii with over 40 brokers and salespeople as his responsibility. Aside from selling and leasing commercial real estate and traditional brokerage transactions through the islands, Andrew’s team is involved in all of the other aspects of commercial and industrial real estate.

As one concierge person told my wife and I while we were touring there, “Yes, it is a great place, now where would you ever think of moving to once you are here.”

In the past year, a young Army Captain and friend called me from Hawaii. He and his wife were taking in some R&R after his last duty tour and he called to ask me for some advice on commercial real estate firms. I gave him Andrews phone number after I checked with Andrew on his availability. Andrew treated my friend to lunch and introduced him to Colliers’ business in the islands. As it turned out, my friend and his wife decided later to relocate to Florida to be closer to their parents. Our Colliers office in Ft. Lauderdale was anxious to interview him and did so. He found a better fit for a concentration in office brokerage with another firm, but I think that it is clear that opportunities do exist with major firms for someone who has an interest, who can demonstrate that they are self motivated and whose comportment (manners, speech, personal grooming, business attire) are all positive. A long time friend told me one night after we and our wives checked in, very late, at a hotel owned by a well known hotel group, “That desk clerk is the person representing this hotel company to its customers and I know the CEO. That clerk’s slight rudeness toward us does not at all represent what their CEO wants his company to be known for in their business. He will need to learn that if he is going to be more than the late night clerk.”

I mention this because a company such as Colliers or any of its competitors must ensure that a salesperson or broker first meeting a potential customer properly represents the company’s image. So much money is spent defining that image to the business community that each person, including all staff, must reflect that effort. Otherwise, a potential customer will choose to hire a competitor whose act is together. My understanding is that customer relation training at Wal-Mart is quite strong for all personnel. I would think that any major restaurant chain has in place a thorough program for staff training and it may pay to observe whether if the customer is not always right at an establishment how the staff person handles a customer who is being a bit particular.

2. Entry

I use Andrew’s story as an example of the opportunity that commercial real estate offers. A senior business mentor and good friend of mine told me in Florida in 1971, just at the beginning of that recession, that commercial real estate offered an opportunity to enter a business without having my own capital to invest other than my time and energy, and, with no limit on the size of transactions that could be put together. We discussed this in relation to my going back to law school. His opinion was that it was almost a “sky is the limit” approach, but with some basic sense to it. I had done a few financial reports on potential deals offered to him. I also handed over that year, at my mentor’s instruction, a $300k commission check to a broker who he had employed to buy a property that he had settled on the year prior to that. The next year, at the same time, I handed over the same check to that broker as the second half of that commission to that broker. Please realize that in 1972 that commission amount in the onset of that recession was a significant amount of money for any transaction.

Each state has its own regulations for licensure. Florida required a person to take a sales licensing course, pass that, then work in a licensed real estate broker’s office for a minimum of two years before being eligible to take a state broker’s exam. The sales course is offered by numerous private firms and colleges, evening courses in particular. The cost of the course is minimal. The basic skills for reading, writing and math portions are not difficult. Depending upon your educational qualifications, commercial real estate firms may often offer to provide the course. Smaller, more generalized, brokerage firms may also do the same in order to gain a salesperson.

There typically is a recognized “culture” or business reputation known for a real estate firm in any community, The community can be local, regional or national. It pays to do your homework as to which firm appears to suit your style. The internet is definitely one of the most productive sources for finding a firm’s history, its areas of expertise, personnel, and its successes. Recognize that major metropolitan commercial firms often outsource client needs in an outlying area to a smaller commercial firm in that area rather than requiring one of their main office brokers to commit to travel time. Consequently, if you are in a rural market outside or between major metropolitan markets, you should investigate which real estate firms have those relationships for the larger deals.

Your time for success starting in commercial real estate (particularly without capital) will be the result of what you put into it. I had the option in the early ’70’s of returning to law school and finishing. What I realized most was that I liked being out of an office and “on the street.” My attorney friends in Ft. Lauderdale were spending innumerable hours, as needed, in their offices to write briefs, draft documents, etc., all of which that profession requires. My decision was to put in the same hours on commercial real estate that I would have to put in for any law practice. If it worked, then fine, if not I would go back to school.

Considering that the early ’70’s recession in Florida hit every occupation with almost equal damage, many attorneys had practices with slim billings and clients whose businesses were suffering economically. Several real estate brokers who I met were having very difficult times because the banks were not lending money for deals. Florida had a usury cap of 14% at that time. Deposits were down and when interest rates in California started to go above 14% that is where the money went.

Weekdays in those years, I was knocking on the doors of businesses in the West Palm to Miami corridor. Weekends, I was often painting a house or captaining a motor sailer owned by a friend’s corporation. Weekday evenings after dinner, I was at the office reviewing property information, ownerships, tax data, etc. for the next day’s driving or phone calls. I found that it was possible to earn a living while getting into the commercial real estate field. I later found out after moving back to Philadelphia, that several of the commercial real estate firms did not mind their starting salespeople to moonlight as bartenders, waiters, or whatever until they had enough experience to close transactions. That has changed somewhat in the larger cities due to the financial strength of the larger firms and their ability to either offer a base salary or draw to new salespersons.

Gender in today’s commercial real estate world is not an issue as it was in the ’70’s. At that time, men only eating clubs were often the norm and women were not often able to match that type of selling locale. The number of women who have joined commercial real estate organizations such as SIOR, CCIM, etc. (which I will discuss later) has increased dramatically over the past 15 years. The commercial real estate courses offered today provide an excellent means of obtaining knowledge that once was taught generally “in house” by senior brokerage personnel responsible for a new salesperson’s progress.

Therefore, in considering commercial real estate the aspect of having minimal capital has not changed. Gender is not an issue and many women who have chosen to specialize in industrial or office real estate have done very well. You
can choose your hours, choose your area of specialty(s), choose your market area(s), and choose who you want to approach as a firm to join. Most commercial real estate involes the standard business week, not including late Saturday or Sunday hours (vs. residential Sunday open houses). These are several of the positive aspects of working in commercial real estate. The competition is keen, your competitors respect a good work effort and, most importantly, they respect a strong reputation for any individual.

You should investigate both larger commercial firms and smaller real estate brokerage firms. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

A). Larger firms may be willing to offer a base salary or a draw against commissions. They may prefer prior business experience, but not necessarily prior real estate brokerage experience that may conflict with what their “culture” is and what their in-house training entails. Typically, a new salesperson would be assigned to a senior broker or brokers to do cold calling, marketing materials, marketing reports for any existing client’s property and probably handle property inspections by other competing brokers with their prospects.

A few points on Larger Firms:

Future ownership potential for you in the company may be limited or non-existent.

Control over what market, territory or discipline that you work in may not be your choice. If you are hired for one department, such as retail, that may change if they need personnel support in another department, such as office. You may find that they prefer a new person to rotate through each department and possible each regional office if they have multiple offices.

Depending upon whether the firm is privately held or a public company it could be sold or merged without you being involved in the discussion. There is no real “safety blanket” for any position in a larger firm. If a primary, large, client is lost to a competitor, cuts may be relatively fast to absorb the lack of revenues.

Senior brokers who are successful occasionally leave to join another firm or to start their own competing firm. Clients usually follow those brokers and that could disrupt your potential income if you are in that department and the rain makers leave.

Deal volume can be significant as can be the size of the deals. If an institutional owner (bank, insurance company, pension fund, etc.) has a presence in an urban market, the leasing or sale assignment that they may award to a larger firm can be a “year maker” if the assignment is completed. Usually some year end bonus money flows down to the salespersons who may have participated in the marketing effort.

Senior brokers should have upper level corporate contacts through either a business association, country club, educational institutions, commercial lenders, or contacts referred from other cities where a corporate headquarters may be located. If the firm owners or top brokers are not developing those contacts and relationships, but are relying on the mid-level brokers to do that you may want to look at another firm whose top management is better involved. You want work to filter down from the top instead of getting the crumbs leftover from competing firms who have a solid community (business and non-business) presence.

B). Smaller firms usually will have a broker/owner running the operations with or without broker partners in the firm. Quite often they will have a residential department and a separate commercial department in which a few of the brokers may work in residential and commercial properties.

A few points about Smaller Firms:

Future ownership shares may be offered depending upon deal volume and commitment to the firm. If the founding broker of the firm is nearing retirement age, the opportunity may be better provided that they are maintaining an fully active presence in the community.

Commission percentages may be much more liberal once a minimum threshold of deal volume is met to cover the cost of your desk, phone, secretarial, etc..

A salary or draw is less likely to be offered.

A senior broker may be more likely to have you work directly under him on any property. You will be accountable directly to him and, as should be the case, learn “on the job.”

If there is a residential component to the firm, those brokers specializing in that area should be a source of commercial referrals and the same for you referring any possible single family residential to them. Smaller multi-family buildings should be on the commercial side of the business, but motels may be on either side. This can vary in an area such as Ft. Lauderdale, Hilton Head, or New Jersey resorts where a residential owner with a relationship to the firm may also own retail rentals.

Most regional areas have a Realtors Association, Chamber of Commerce or other organization that offers discounted insurance and other benefits to its members. Whereas a larger firm may have a good corporate health plan and other bulk discounted benefits to its employees, you should look at the costs for each that are offered. I have not found that much of a saving on either side, but if you leave a larger firm you will need to find the alternatives that are affordable.

Your business exposure may actually be more effective working out of a smaller firm and being a primary contact for that firm instead of a secondary contact at a larger firm.

Property databases and the Internet have provided smaller firms with much better access to real estate information than in the mid-’90’s and before when only larger firms could afford to maintain proprietary property information for a larger market. Launching a significant marketing campaign for a property can be expensive even with the Internet and smaller firms will have a lack of cash resources to compete for major property listings. Deal size, therefore, will be smaller and you will have to strive for volume,

Best regards.

Peter P. Liebert,IV-SIOR
Flourtown, PA

10 Things Every Buyer Needs – To Close A Commercial Real Estate Loan

For nearly 30 years, I have represented borrowers and lenders in commercial real estate transactions. During this time it has become apparent that many Buyers do not have a clear understanding of what is required to document a commercial real estate loan. Unless the basics are understood, the likelihood of success in closing a commercial real estate transaction is greatly reduced.

Throughout the process of negotiating the sale contract, all parties must keep their eye on what the Buyer’s lender will reasonably require as a condition to financing the purchase. This may not be what the parties want to focus on, but if this aspect of the transaction is ignored, the deal may not close at all.

Sellers and their agents often express the attitude that the Buyer’s financing is the Buyer’s problem, not theirs. Perhaps, but facilitating Buyer’s financing should certainly be of interest to Sellers. How many sale transactions will close if the Buyer cannot get financing?

This is not to suggest that Sellers should intrude upon the relationship between the Buyer and its lender, or become actively involved in obtaining Buyer’s financing. It does mean, however, that the Seller should understand what information concerning the property the Buyer will need to produce to its lender to obtain financing, and that Seller should be prepared to fully cooperate with the Buyer in all reasonable respects to produce that information.

Basic Lending Criteria

Lenders actively involved in making loans secured by commercial real estate typically have the same or similar documentation requirements. Unless these requirements can be satisfied, the loan will not be funded. If the loan is not funded, the sale transaction will not likely close.

For Lenders, the object, always, is to establish two basic lending criteria:

1. The ability of the borrower to repay the loan; and

2. The ability of the lender to recover the full amount of the loan, including outstanding principal, accrued and unpaid interest, and all reasonable costs of collection, in the event the borrower fails to repay the loan.

In nearly every loan of every type, these two lending criteria form the basis of the lender’s willingness to make the loan. Virtually all documentation in the loan closing process points to satisfying these two criteria. There are other legal requirements and regulations requiring lender compliance, but these two basic lending criteria represent, for the lender, what the loan closing process seeks to establish. They are also a primary focus of bank regulators, such as the FDIC, in verifying that the lender is following safe and sound lending practices.

Few lenders engaged in commercial real estate lending are interested in making loans without collateral sufficient to assure repayment of the entire loan, including outstanding principal, accrued and unpaid interest, and all reasonable costs of collection, even where the borrower’s independent ability to repay is substantial. As we have seen time and again, changes in economic conditions, whether occurring from ordinary economic cycles, changes in technology, natural disasters, divorce, death, and even terrorist attack or war, can change the “ability” of a borrower to pay. Prudent lending practices require adequate security for any loan of substance.

Documenting The Loan

There is no magic to documenting a commercial real estate loan. There are issues to resolve and documents to draft, but all can be managed efficiently and effectively if all parties to the transaction recognize the legitimate needs of the lender and plan the transaction and the contract requirements with a view toward satisfying those needs within the framework of the sale transaction.

While the credit decision to issue a loan commitment focuses primarily on the ability of the borrower to repay the loan; the loan closing process focuses primarily on verification and documentation of the second stated criteria: confirmation that the collateral is sufficient to assure repayment of the loan, including all principal, accrued and unpaid interest, late fees, attorneys fees and other costs of collection, in the event the borrower fails to voluntarily repay the loan.

With this in mind, most commercial real estate lenders approach commercial real estate closings by viewing themselves as potential “back-up buyers”. They are always testing their collateral position against the possibility that the Buyer/Borrower will default, with the lender being forced to foreclose and become the owner of the property. Their documentation requirements are designed to place the lender, after foreclosure, in as good a position as they would require at closing if they were a sophisticated direct buyer of the property; with the expectation that the lender may need to sell the property to a future sophisticated buyer to recover repayment of their loan.

Top 10 Lender Deliveries

In documenting a commercial real estate loan, the parties must recognize that virtually all commercial real estate lenders will require, among other things, delivery of the following “property documents”:

1. Operating Statements for the past 3 years reflecting income and expenses of operations, including cost and timing of scheduled capital improvements;

2. Certified copies of all Leases;

3. A Certified Rent Roll as of the date of the Purchase Contract, and again as of a date within 2 or 3 days prior to closing;

4. Estoppel Certificates signed by each tenant (or, typically, tenants representing 90% of the leased GLA in the project) dated within 15 days prior to closing;

5. Subordination, Non-Disturbance and Attornment (“SNDA”) Agreements signed by each tenant;

6. An ALTA lender’s title insurance policy with required endorsements, including, among others, an ALTA 3.1 Zoning Endorsement (modified to include parking), ALTA Endorsement No. 4 (Contiguity Endorsement insuring the mortgaged property constitutes a single parcel with no gaps or gores), and an Access Endorsement (insuring that the mortgaged property has access to public streets and ways for vehicular and pedestrian traffic);

7. Copies of all documents of record which are to remain as encumbrances following closing, including all easements, restrictions, party wall agreements and other similar items;

8. A current Plat of Survey prepared in accordance with 2011 Minimum Standard Detail for ALTA/ACSM Land Title Surveys, certified to the lender, Buyer and the title insurer;

9. A satisfactory Environmental Site Assessment Report (Phase I Audit) and, if appropriate under the circumstances, a Phase 2 Audit, to demonstrate the property is not burdened with any recognized environmental defect; and

10. A Site Improvements Inspection Report to evaluate the structural integrity of improvements.

To be sure, there will be other requirements and deliveries the Buyer will be expected to satisfy as a condition to obtaining funding of the purchase money loan, but the items listed above are virtually universal. If the parties do not draft the purchase contract to accommodate timely delivery of these items to lender, the chances of closing the transaction are greatly reduced.

Planning for Closing Costs

The closing process for commercial real estate transactions can be expensive. In addition to drafting the Purchase Contract to accommodate the documentary requirements of the Buyer’s lender, the Buyer and his advisors need to consider and adequately plan for the high cost of bringing a commercial real estate transaction from contract to closing.

If competent Buyer’s counsel and competent lender’s counsel work together, each understanding what is required to be done to get the transaction closed, the cost of closing can be kept to a minimum, though it will undoubtedly remain substantial. It is not unusual for closing costs for a commercial real estate transaction with even typical closing issues to run thousands of dollars. Buyers must understand this and be prepared to accept it as a cost of doing business.

Sophisticated Buyers understand the costs involved in documenting and closing a commercial real estate transaction and factor them into the overall cost of the transaction, just as they do costs such as the agreed upon purchase price, real estate brokerage commissions, loan brokerage fees, loan commitment fees and the like.

Closing costs can constitute significant transaction expenses and must be factored into the Buyer’s business decision-making process in determining whether to proceed with a commercial real estate transaction. They are inescapable expenditures that add to Buyer’s cost of acquiring commercial real estate. They must be taken into account to determine the “true purchase price” to be paid by the Buyer to acquire any given project and to accurately calculate the anticipated yield on investment.

Some closing costs may be shifted to the Seller through custom or effective contract negotiation, but many will unavoidably fall on the Buyer. These can easily total tens of thousands of dollars in an even moderately sized commercial real estate transaction in the $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 price range.

Costs often overlooked, but ever present, include title insurance with required lender endorsements, an ALTA Survey, environmental audit(s), a Site Improvements Inspection Report and, somewhat surprisingly, Buyers attorney’s fees.

For reasons that escape me, inexperienced Buyers of commercial real estate, and even some experienced Buyers, nearly always underestimate attorneys fees required in any given transaction. This is not because they are unpredictable, since the combined fees a Buyer must pay to its own attorney and to the Lender’s attorney typically aggregate around 1% of the Purchase Price. Perhaps it stems from wishful thinking associated with the customarily low attorneys fees charged by attorneys handling residential real estate closings. In reality, the level of sophistication and the amount of specialized work required to fully investigate and document a transaction for a Buyer of commercial real estate makes comparisons with residential real estate transactions inappropriate. Sophisticated commercial real estate investors understand this. Less sophisticated commercial real estate buyers must learn how to properly budget this cost.

Conclusion

Concluding negotiations for the sale/purchase of a substantial commercial real estate project is a thrilling experience but, until the transaction closes, it is only ink on paper. To get to closing, the contract must anticipate the documentation the Buyer will be required to deliver to its lender to obtain purchase money financing. The Buyer must also be aware of the substantial costs to be incurred in preparing for closing so that Buyer may reasonably plan its cash requirements for closing. With a clear understanding of what is required, and advanced planning to satisfy those requirements, the likelihood of successfully closing will be greatly enhanced.

Commercial Real Estate Investing Vs Residential

Is commercial real estate investing a better investment than investing in residential properties? Now, we all know that real estate in general is a great investment vehicle and both residential and commercial properties can be good investments. Either avenue can have a tremendous effect on your net worth, but most people think only of residential property when they think about investing in real estate. While this is certainly the most viable route for most people, commercial property can offer additional benefits the residential model can not offer.

Three Reasons Commercial Investments are better than Residential Deals:

1.) Commercial Real Estate Gives You More Access to More Capital

It has been my experience that it is somewhat easier to raise larger amounts of capital (under $3M) for a commercial deal than it is to raise $150,000 for a residential deal. As a residential investor your access to capital is limited primarily to traditional financing, hard money lenders, and private money from individual investors. If you are unable to raise capital from one of these three avenues, then you are forced to acquire property in more of a creative manner with owner financing, subject to strategies, lease options, etc. This in itself is not a bad thing, but unfortunately you will have to walk away from some good deals that can’t be acquired with creative financing techniques.

In commercial real estate it is more common for investors to pool their capital together and syndicate deals, you will also find that smaller private equity firms and finance companies are more inclined to do joint venture projects and provide the needed capital to complete the deal if the deal makes sense. So as a commercial investor you have the potential to raise capital for a deal from the same sources as residential projects such as: Traditional Financing and Hard Money, but additionally you could access capital through smaller private equity firms, hedge funds, private REITs, investment groups, and the list goes on.

There also seems to be a sense of intrigue and prestige when it comes to investing in commercial deals. Perhaps, due to the state of the current commercial market, it appears investors are trending more toward investing in commercial projects.

2.) Commercial Real Estate is Less Competitive

When you think about it from a marketing perspective, most investors target residential property owners, thus making the residential market more competitive. In many arenas, from industry news sources, the World Wide Web, all the “We Buy Houses” signs virtually on every street corner, there are a lot of marketing tactics targeting residential property owners. If you take the same marketing strategies discussed and apply them to commercial real estate, you will probably find you are the ONLY person contacting these commercial property owners in regards to selling their property. Most commercial properties under $5 million tend to be too large for most residential investors, yet too small for most institutional investors.

3.) Commercial Real Estate allows for “Forced” Appreciation

Residential properties are typically valued based on other comparable properties that have sold in the area and are similar in features. If the “comps” for a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom house in a particular neighborhood is roughly $100,000, then your property is probably going to be worth $100,000. It doesn’t matter too much if your target property has additional features, or if your house is getting $900 a month in rent as opposed to the house down the street that is only renting for $700 a month. All things considered, your property will still be valued pretty close to the “comps” of the area.

However, in commercial real estate, the valuation of a property is based on the revenue that the property generates. Now, commercial properties are still subject to the “comps” of the area as it pertains to “How” that revenue is valued in terms of capitalization rates. But, the overall premise is that, the more revenue a property generates, the more that property is worth.

So, in order to “force” the appreciation of your commercial property, you need to find additional ways to increase the revenue that the property generates. A small increase in revenue can increase the value of a property significantly depending on the “Cap Rates” in the area for that type of commercial real estate. Unfortunately, with residential real estate this isn’t an option as you really can’t force appreciation. Your property will be valued in the general range of the market comps.

So, as you can now see, commercial real estate offers many benefits over residential investments in addition to higher returns on your investment.

Now of course there are disadvantages with any investment vehicle, commercial real estate included. However, consider the following when choosing between residential or commercial investing to create your passive income stream;

1) The building qualifies for the loan; Not the borrower

2) The building pays back the loan; Not the borrower

3) Others are expected to manage the building; Not the borrower

4) Income determines the value of the property; Not the comps

5) Cap Rate measures demand for the property; Not the comps.

To sum it up: a commercial property’s value is eternally tied to the income the property produces and overall demand for the property’s services. Therefore, based on the property’s location and the highest and best utilization, commercial real estate investments can certainly create a larger return on your investment over time verses residential investments. Perhaps, this is even more true in our current market cycle.