What does someone need to successfully start a real estate business across many locations? In other cities? In overseas markets?
These are questions I often get, and there are no easy answers. Breaking into the real estate business is difficult even in the best of times, when investment opportunities (and the openings to seize such opportunities) abound and competition is stiff. To break into a foreign market (or even another domestic one) is several times as difficult; it involves variables that you may not have planned for–including such factors as different regulations, business environment, and investing rules.
Still, there are some general mindsets and tips that I can offer those who are looking overseas for their next real estate venture. It’s important to keep in mind that because the circumstances change so much with the market, this advice is, by necessity, general.
Remember: Real Estate is a Local Business
This saying is something of a truism, commonly repeated by top news publications and even students alike, but there’s a reason for that: it’s accurate. After all, they say that location is everything in any business, but this is doubly true in real estate, both commercial and residential. Investing in or developing the next hot neighborhood or rising commercial district can yield large profits, while failed developments carry significant financial and personal costs. After all, abandoned projects are costly to renovate or rebuild, and further, serve as tangible reminders of failure.
In addition, there are large variations between different real estate markets–even in the same country. Take New York, for instance: as a gateway market and highly developed hub of a range of industries (from finance to tech), the city has a layered, complex system of building regulations. My firm, GreenOak Real Estate, specializes in such gateway markets, where laws are tight, serving as a higher barrier to entry, covering everything from zoning to rent regulation to landmarking. In these cities, it’s harder to build more developments (at least without the proper funding, partners, and regulators on your side).
Contrast this business and legal climate with other areas, especially on the West Coast. Los Angeles, for instance, was recently named the best real estate market in the nation, at least for global investors, beating out other stalwarts like New York and Boston. Much of the difference has to do with saturation: Los Angeles is simply less saturated with development than East Coast cities with more (and older) buildings; that the city also took longer to recover from the Recession was another factor.
Different Countries, Different Circumstances
All this is to say that, even within a nation, there is a huge amount of variation between cities or geographical regions. But the differences between countries are even larger.
One anecdote comes from personal experience. Having worked in both New York and Japan, I’ve seen some significant differences. Take office leases: in New York City, such leases are usually quite long, around 10-15 years, whereas in Japan, comparable leases often average 6-24 months. Further, instead of measuring floor space and price by dollars per square foot (as they do in the United States), in Japan, it’s measured by yen per tsubo. Add to that the different conventions in play: leasing agents, the leasing process, and the markets are entirely different.
There are also different considerations if you enter an emerging market, as well. By their very definition, emerging markets are on the rise, and as such, don’t have the same institutions as more developed economies. As a result, emerging markets will have different business and legal norms and institutions. Corruption, for example, is often a problem–a result of underdeveloped institutions and high wealth, as well as many other underlying social and political causes. One look at the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index demonstrates just how widespread graft is.
Move there and Get Experience, or…
That’s not to say that you should steer clear of emerging markets, or any other locations. Instead, if you’re set on expanding and have a burning desire to succeed in a different market (or to build a business across many time zones), there’s no substitute for one of two things: either move there and get experience working in said location, or go into business with a trustworthy, utterly reliable partner who has the requisite experience.
In my case, I worked in Asia for more than ten years, building up the real estate investment division for my former employer. During this time, I immersed myself in the business environment, learning all the ins and outs, the various cultural subtleties, and developing a feel for the gateway cities where I worked. After all, every market has its own conventions and practices, and you really need to be a local in this business–or else your partner (again, a trusted, rock-solid individual) has to be.
In the end, it comes down to this: the right experience and the right people. Expanding overseas, especially in real estate, is a difficult, challenging, but entirely rewarding undertaking. There’s simply no replacement, however, for either gaining the experience yourself or recruiting those who have the necessary skills to not just survive, but thrive in the market.