What Real Estate Developers Do and Why I Became One

“I was training to be an architect, and I started realizing that I could make more money as a developer.”

Brandon Donnelly Brandon Donnelly

Brandon Donnelly is an architect-trained and tech-obsessed real estate developer who runs an insightful daily blog for city builders. Join his 14,000 followers and subscribers by clicking here.

I met up with a friend recently after work, and the topic of my blog came up. He said he loved the content but that he would like to learn more about the inner workings of what it means to be a real estate developer. His belief was that there are lots of city blogs out there, but rarely do you get the candid perspective of a developer.

I immediately thought this was a good idea for one simple reason: When I’m at a party and I tell someone that I’m a real estate developer, oftentimes they have no idea what that means. They usually think I’m a real estate agent, or they ask me to explain a typical day. Either way, I’ve found it generally smoother (and more impressive) to just lie and say I’m an architect.

So I’m going to do just what my friend suggested. I’m going to make an effort to talk more about what it means to be a real estate developer. To kick it off, I thought I’d start with some of the basics and then talk about how I got into the business.

Real estate developers are effectively the entrepreneurs that make a new building happen. They go out and buy the land, they put a team in place (architect, engineers and so on), they get the necessary approvals to build (with the help of the team of course), they finance the deal and then they get a builder to actually construct the project.

Developers are like an orchestra conductor. They don’t play any instruments, they just direct the performance.

But at the same time, developers assume 100 percent of the risk of the project. If the building fails (because you can’t sell the condo units or lease out the space), that all falls on the developer (and his/her investors). All of the other team members are getting paid based on the services they provide. They’re consultants.

This distinction is what makes — can make — real estate development so lucrative. With risk comes reward. And I’ll be completely candid in saying that this is part of the reason I decided to get into development. I was training to be an architect, and I started realizing that I could make more money as a developer.

But I also came to the realization that, as a developer, I would likely end up having more say over the built environment. That’s the unfortunate reality of my industry. Even though architects spend far more time than your average developer thinking about what makes buildings and cities great, I would argue that they don’t have nearly the same amount of say. If they did, we probably wouldn’t have so many crappy buildings in our cities. But it’s this way because architects aren’t assuming the risk.

Part of me used to actually feel bad about switching over to the dark side, which is how some architects refer to the development game. But the best way to summarize how I feel today is through what an architect friend told me a few years ago: “Brandon, cities don’t need more architects that care about design. We have lots of those. Cities need more developers that care about design.”

And so that’s what I became. A developer who loves design and cares deeply about one of our greatest assets: cities.

This post first appeared on brandondonnelly.com.

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