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From property business strategies to avoiding pitfalls, Ritchie Clapson, an established developer, author, industry commentator, gives a guideline on how you can get into property development.

By Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, co-founder of propertyCEO   

Not everyone is a born entrepreneur. Most people are happy with a regular pay cheque, five weeks annual leave, and a decent pension. There is something to be said for playing it safe, however it does mean that most people are unlikely to achieve the scale of financial freedom that a successful business owner can. Not only can successful entrepreneurs supercharge their income while they’re working, but they can also eventually sell their businesses for six, seven, or eight-figure sums. This put them in a different league to most people, at least financially.

But I don’t need to tell you that entrepreneurship can have its downsides.  After starting a business keeping it going profitably year after year is quite another thing. So what do people routinely get wrong when starting a new business? And is it possible to find a business model that avoid the usual challenges that affect most businesses? Let me share my answers to these questions.

Ritchie Clapson propertyCEO (3) SQ2-2

A business model that makes sense

In my view, the business model that makes the most sense to start in the current market (and it has done for a while) is a small-scale property development business. We’re talking about, for example, turning an old office building or shop into a few new flats, something much more manageable and frankly not much further up the property development ladder than doing a flip or a refurb.

Such a project should comfortably net you a six-figure profit, and it’ll likely take 18-24 months from when you acquire the property to when you bank the proceeds. This is all very nice, but why do I think property development (and doing small-scale projects in particular) has an edge compared to other types of business? 

One of the rudimentary requirements of any new business is that there must be a market for the product or service it will be introducing. However, it’s very easy to get this bit wrong. Remember Betamax video recorders, and sprayable cheese? These are products that memorably bombed, but there are vast numbers of less memorable ones. 

Comparison with a technology business

Linked to this, another critical advantage that property development has relates to technology. If you decide to play it safe and launch a product or service that already has a strong demand, then you usually have to differentiate.

There’s a massive global demand for mobile phones, but if you decided to launch your own handset, it would have to be different from or better than the current offerings from Apple and Samsung; otherwise, no one will be interested. But with property, not only is there very little new technology, but there’s also no requirement for a new home to be built any differently from the millions of other homes that exist all over the country. You might have a few more USB charging points and some underfloor heating in the bathrooms, but the house you build today is in some ways no more advanced than the stuff we built years ago. 

Barriers to entry

If I want to open a dental practice, I’ll first need to study to become qualified dentist, which takes several years and then get experience in dental practice. Only then could I think about establishing my own business. However, I then run into the usual start-up issues that every entrepreneur must consider but which an employee doesn’t ever need to think about. Where’s the best location for my practice? Where will I get the money to buy the premises and equipment? How will I get new customers and recruit dentists to work for me? Etc, etc. But none of these barriers to entry exist in property development. 

If you decided to develop property today, you could find a property or piece of land to buy from a commercial agent (or just look on Rightmove or Zoopla). Providing that the deal stacks up, getting commercial finance and private investment to fund both the purchase and the development work is relatively straightforward because there is so much money out there looking for a good home. And when it comes to the skills needed to develop a property, such as Architects and Structural Engineers, you simply hire these in.

The skills you need as a developer are people, organizational, management, and decision-making skills. And I’d be amazed if you didn’t have these already. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting for one minute that you should dive into property development without getting trained first. But you can see how highly leveraged it is from a skills perspective compared to many other types of business.

Your credibility

Let’s move on. The next thing we need is some credibility. Customers like to trust a new business before they engage, but how do you get this trust if you’re brand new? The first point to make here is that your end-user customers i.e. the people that live in the homes you’ve built, don’t really care about your credibility or experience as a developer. The people you actually need to impress are property agents, commercial lenders and private investors.

The key point to remember is that no one is expecting you to lay any bricks or produce any plans. You have a contractor and an architect on your team who will do that for you. And if you add up all of the years’ experience of your entire team and the number of projects they’ve worked on, you’ll discover that your business is already hugely experienced. The football team may have a new manager (you), but the players on the pitch have been doing their stuff for years and they give you credibility in spades.

Costs and margins

We should also give a thought to employees, something that many new businesses require and which have all manner of associated costs, responsibilities, and regulation. Well, not so in property development. Yes, you might employ a virtual assistant (VA) to help you with some of your routine tasks, but because the model is so highly leveraged, the people that do most of the work are employed by someone else, like your contractor. You’re unlikely to end up hiring anyone yourself. 

One of the things that kills many businesses is high fixed overheads and a lack of cashflow. As a developer, your running costs are minimal, plus you can take a break between projects without having to continually feed the overheads.

Another consideration should be your margins. Every business has to be profitable, but some industries have tighter margins than others. In property development, you’ll typically target a margin of 20% of the gross development value (GDV), i.e., what you sell your finished homes for. For example, convert a shop into ten flats worth £100k each, then your GDV is £1m, and your target margin is £200k. You don’t set this 20% margin figure yourself – it’s a requirement of your commercial lender, who will be lending you most of the funds to acquire the property and pay for its development.

They don’t want you to lose money on the project, so they’ll make sure you’ve got enough profit to ride out a few storms and still end up in the black. You’ll also have a not-insignificant contingency fund to cater for unexpected costs, further protecting you against shirt-losing scenarios.

Government incentives

A final consideration for any new business is whether the government gives you any incentive to get started. The UK government is desperate to get more new homes built and has discovered that the lowest-hanging fruit is converting the many thousands of unused shops and commercial buildings.

They’ve recently expanded the number of permitted development rights to convert these buildings into residential use without full planning permission being required. This makes it much easier to both borrow money and also to dodge the vagaries of our broken planning system.

Making a decision

You’ll have a lot to think about if you decided to start a business, and it is important to remember that the process will have its ups and down. What will be important is that you do your homework in advance, and decide on a business model that will work for you and which reduces risk as much as possible.

On average, around 20% of UK businesses fail during their first two years, which rises to 45% after five years and 65% after ten years. Yet every one of those entrepreneurs had high hopes of success when they started. So, what do people routinely get wrong when creating a new business? And is it possible to find a business model that doesn’t suffer from the usual challenges that affect most businesses?

About the author

Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE is an established developer, author, industry commentator, and co-founder of leading property development training company propertyCEO. To discover how you can get into property development, visit www.propertyceo.co.uk 

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