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How to Get into Commercial Real Estate: Steppingstones and Career Paths

CEO Khai Intela
While many individuals focus on investment banking and private equity, commercial real estate (CRE) often goes unnoticed. However, getting into commercial real estate is a much easier feat for many people compared to breaking into...

While many individuals focus on investment banking and private equity, commercial real estate (CRE) often goes unnoticed. However, getting into commercial real estate is a much easier feat for many people compared to breaking into investment banking. With numerous pathways into the industry, a high GPA or Ivy League degree is not necessarily required, and there are plenty of well-paying roles available. Nevertheless, it's important to consider the industry's cyclical nature and the potential challenge of transitioning to another field after spending years in real estate.

How to Get into Commercial Real Estate: Which Sector Do You Target?

Commercial real estate can be divided into two main sectors: "fee for service" and "investing" roles. In the fee for service category, individuals provide services or execute deals by connecting buyers and sellers, earning money based on the volume of their services or deals. The investing category involves making investment decisions and profiting based on capital and deal performance. This distinction is similar to the buy-side vs. sell-side concept in finance, specifically tailored to real estate.

While it's generally challenging to secure investing roles directly out of university, targeting fee for service roles for initial internships and jobs is a better strategy for students. However, it's crucial to note that there are exceptions to this rule, and the sector categories mentioned above may not always be the best way to approach the industry. Instead, considering a "career map" can provide a clearer understanding of the various roles and their potential progression paths.

How to Get into Commercial Real Estate: Initial Roles

If you aspire to advance to bigger and better CRE roles, focusing on appraisal/valuation and brokerage roles is recommended.

Leasing/Property Management

In these roles, you work at a local property management firm, dealing with tenant-related issues for various property types (apartments, offices, retail, industrial, etc.). Your tasks include renewing leases, negotiating new terms, and handling repairs, maintenance, renovations, and installations. While the job can be stressful, especially when dealing with residential properties, it provides valuable knowledge about leases, property budgets, and management. However, moving from these roles to investment/deal-related positions can be challenging, as some CRE investors may not highly regard property management. Entry-level roles typically offer compensation between $50,000 to $100,000 in the U.S.

Appraisal/Valuation

Real estate appraisal involves valuing properties for sales or refinancing purposes. It's an excellent initial job in CRE as it offers the opportunity to gain experience in real estate financial analysis, valuation, and networking with brokers and investors. Licensing requirements may vary depending on your location, with states like Texas requiring significant study and training hours. Starting pay for appraisers ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 and can increase to six figures with experience.

Brokerage

Brokers connect buyers and sellers of properties, earning commissions based on the transaction value. While securing brokerage roles doesn't typically require prestigious degrees or high grades, succeeding in the job can be challenging, especially during the first 6-12 months. Many brokerage positions are commission-based, meaning you earn nothing until you close a deal. However, skilled brokers with a strong network can earn lucrative commissions, with top performers earning well into the six-figure range.

Architecture/Construction/Engineering

While not directly related to commercial real estate, these roles can be utilized to transition into real estate development. They offer valuable knowledge about the physical aspects of real estate but require significant education and licensing exams. These roles may not be ideal for those solely interested in commercial real estate due to their focus on the physical rather than financial analysis.

How to Get into Commercial Real Estate: Intermediate Roles

Intermediate roles in commercial real estate often require some work experience, such as internships or previous relevant roles. Asset management, real estate private equity (smaller firms), real estate lending, and real estate investment banking are the common paths at this stage.

Asset Management

Asset management involves optimizing properties and coordinating various activities, such as appraisals, renovations, and budgeting. While compensation in asset management tends to be lower compared to acquisition roles, it offers good exit opportunities, such as transitioning to acquisitions, real estate private equity, lending, or even investment banking. Targeting life insurance companies with real estate operations can provide a less competitive entry point into asset management.

Real Estate Private Equity (Smaller Firms)

Real estate private equity (REPE) firms focus on acquiring and selling properties. Junior-level roles involve financial modeling, due diligence, and reports. REPE offers more flexibility in terms of background requirements compared to traditional private equity, allowing individuals from real estate brokerage, lending, and REIT roles to enter the industry. While smaller REPE firms offer more opportunities for entry, larger firms like Blackstone and Brookfield generally require real estate investment banking experience for competitive prospects.

Real Estate Lending

Commercial real estate lenders review deals and make decisions on funding loans for property acquisitions and developments. Lenders play a critical role as most commercial real estate deals involve substantial debt. Real estate lending offers a wide range of entry paths and exposure to numerous deals, making it a great option for those interested in building experience in the industry. The skills acquired in this role can open doors to other areas within real estate, such as real estate debt funds, REITs, REPE, and real estate investment banking.

Real Estate Investment Banking

Real estate investment banking (REIB) involves advising companies in the real estate sector. This field is more closely related to traditional investment banking and differs from real estate brokerage. Breaking into REIB is highly competitive, and securing internships during the early years of university is crucial. Previous internships, networking, and technical preparation are essential factors for success in REIB. While it may be possible to transition from other CRE roles to REIB, it is less common due to the differing skill sets required. REIB offers high pay and excellent exit opportunities, making it an attractive option for those willing to tackle the competitive nature of the field.

How to Get into Commercial Real Estate: Endgame Roles

Endgame roles in commercial real estate are often considered permanent positions. Real estate private equity (larger firms), real estate debt funds, real estate development, and real estate investment trusts (REITs) are some of the final career destinations in this industry.

Real Estate Private Equity (Larger Firms)

Larger REPE firms, such as Blackstone, Starwood, and Brookfield, offer well-established hierarchies and advancement opportunities. These firms are often considered endgame goals, providing stability and potential for growth.

Real Estate Debt Funds

Real estate debt funds differ from commercial real estate lending, specializing in a wider range of debt issuances, including riskier mezzanine tranches. These independent entities raise capital from outside investors and offer higher pay ceilings. Career progression within debt funds provides opportunities to transition into real estate investment banking, real estate private equity, or other related roles. Breaking into RE debt funds can be challenging, and several years of full-time experience are typically required.

Real Estate Development

Real estate development is a unique field that involves dealing with various challenges, including budget management, construction issues, government approvals, and more. The job requires a combination of financial analysis skills and hands-on experience. Transitioning into development roles can be done through finance/deal-based paths or through construction/architecture/engineering backgrounds. Success in development can provide significant financial rewards, as developers often receive a share of profits in successful deals.

Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)

REITs operate as long-term holding companies, acquiring, developing, and selling properties. Entry into REITs often requires a few years of experience in fields like real estate investment banking, real estate private equity, CRE lending, or RE debt funds. Compensation in REITs tends to be lower than in REPE, but the hours are generally more manageable. Advancement to C-level executive positions can offer lucrative pay and reduced stress levels.

How to Get into Commercial Real Estate: Final Thoughts

Commercial real estate can be a rewarding career choice if you're willing to network aggressively, possess good execution skills, and have motivation that extends beyond impressive on-paper credentials. The best entry point into commercial real estate depends on your current position. For university students, securing internships in initial roles such as brokerage, appraisals, or leasing is a suitable starting point. Real estate investment banking is an excellent option for those aiming for competitive internships at large banks early on. Graduates can consider roles in real estate lending, brokerage, or asset management, leveraging their current experience. For individuals with unrelated backgrounds, pursuing a Master's degree or an MBA may be beneficial.

Once you're in the industry, the next step depends on your priorities. If work-life balance is essential and you don't mind lower compensation, CRE lending can be an excellent choice. If you prefer a more entrepreneurial path and wish to be involved in the physical aspects of real estate, real estate development may be the best fit. The broad nature of the field ensures that there is a role to suit almost any preference.

In conclusion, commercial real estate offers various entry points and diverse career paths. By understanding the industry and assessing your goals and strengths, you can find the right path to success in commercial real estate.

Read More

For further information, you may be interested in reading the article titled "The Real Estate Pro-Forma: Full Guide, Excel Template, Explanations, and More."

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