Finding Opportunities for Real Estate Development

People often think that in order to be a real estate developer you have to stick a shovel in the ground. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What land developers do is make some change to the real estate that will increase its value. Real estate development potential exists where the parcel can be transformed in some way so that it will appeal to more types of buyers. Two of the cardinal rules in the land development business are that the value of land is always relative to how (or if) the property can be used, and the value of the land parcel increases when the property can be used by either more buyers or additional categories of buyers.

In reality, opportunities for real estate development are all around you because there are several ways of developing land that don’t involve building. It is true that sometimes development through change involves building, such as modifying an existing structure or demolishing it and building a new one. But many more real estate development opportunities exist where the change to the property is invisible.

For example, suppose you find a residential property located on a street that takes a lot of traffic. The appeal (and therefore, the value) of the parcel is limited because the only potential buyers are people who wouldn’t object to living in a house on a busy street. Chances are, the highest and best use of this property is something other than straight residential. So you would want to determine if there were alternative uses possible to expand the market for this property and increase its value. How would you find this out?

The first thing you should do is determine what uses of the property are allowed under the current zoning by reviewing the zoning map and ordinance available at the municipal office. Once you locate the property on the zoning map, you will see what zoning district the property is in. Then you would read the provisions in the zoning ordinance for that district. These would deal with several issues: uses permitted “by right” (meaning that no use approval is necessary), special uses permitted only when approval is given by a municipal board, and dimensional requirements, such as the minimum lot size and width, building setbacks and the height of structures. (You should review the entire ordinance because there may be other provisions elsewhere in the book that would also apply to the property.)

The particular zoning classification might permit single-family detached houses on the specified lot size by right. But it might also allow the property to be used as a school, church, or day care facility when authorized by the municipality so long as the property satisfied some specific conditions. These might require that the total land area of the parcel be a certain minimum size (e.g., at least 10 acres), the property be serviced by public utilities, or that the building and paved areas not exceed a certain percentage of the total land square footage of the parcel.

Next you would review the municipality’s comprehensive or master land use plan. This document might say, for instance, that the local government wanted to encourage professional office uses in the area where your property was located. This would indicate that the municipality might be open to either a change of the zoning classification for the property or allow it to be used for professional office by granting a “use variance.” A variance does not change the underlying zoning classification of a property, but essentially permits the property to “violate” some provision of the zoning. In this case, a use variance would allow the property to be used for something other than a single family detached home, church, school or day care. However, the municipality would likely impose some conditions and restrictions in exchange for the variance, such as preservation of the existing structure or limitations on the total amount of building square footage that could be built.

If you could develop this property by getting a change of use approved, the property would certainly be worth more than as a home. You could then sell it to buyers who wanted to construct an office building to either lease out the space or sell the property once the office facility was completed.