Commercial Real Estate Career Paths [Where To Start]

One of the best things about the real estate business is the sheer amount of options available as far as where you can take your career, but this can also cause some pretty serious analysis paralysis for people just getting started.

What you do and where you work in your first few years in the industry can have a big impact on your career trajectory, and taking the time up front to be intentional about the first job you take can do a lot to set you up for long-term success.

So to help you zero in on the parts of the business and the specific job disciplines you might want to focus on, this article talks through four of the most common entry-level roles in the real estate industry, what you might be doing in each, and which path might be best for you if you’re just getting started in the business.

If video is more your thing, you can watch the video version of this article here:

Commercial Real Estate Sales Agent

If you’re a natural born salesperson and feel comfortable starting out without a base salary, you may want to consider starting in a commercial real estate sales agent role.

These are usually 100% commission, production-focused positions at companies like Marcus & Millichap and smaller, local brokerage firms, and often include a heavy focus on sales training and prospecting.

Marcus & Millichap is one of the biggest employers of entry-level CRE sales agents and is known throughout the industry to have extremely strong sales training programs, and because these are commission-based roles, there also isn’t a cap on your income if you perform.

However, with that unlimited upside also comes the fact that you’re effectively working for free when you first start out, and it’s not uncommon for new agents to make very little money in their first 12-18 months on the job.

And even though sales training at these companies tends to be some of the best in the industry, training on the analytics and underwriting of commercial real estate is almost nonexistent in 100% commission-based roles, which is something to think about if your goal is to transition into an acquisitions or asset management position in the future.

If you consider yourself a natural salesperson, you aren’t interested in the analytics of commercial real estate, and you don’t want a ceiling on your income at any stage of your career, this type of a position could be a great place to start.

Commercial Real Estate Brokerage Analyst

If brokerage sounds good to you, but you also want to learn the analytics of the business and get paid a livable wage in the first few years of your career, an analyst role at a real estate brokerage firm could be a much better fit.

These are Investment Sales Analyst, Capital Markets Analyst, or Debt & Equity Placement Analyst roles at companies like CBRE, JLL, Cushman & Wakefield, and Eastdil Secured, where you’re working on the analytics behind the sale or financing of big commercial real estate assets, often on behalf of major institutions.

Brokerage analyst roles will often require the longest hours of any entry-level position in commercial real estate, but you’ll also generally learn the most in the shortest period of time. And if you’re able to join a high-producing team, you’ll usually out-earn the vast majority of your peers in these positions, with commission-sharing and bonus percentages often becoming substantial components of all-in compensation.

These types of roles also offer the opportunity to both build a network and learn the underwriting and analysis process at a very high level, which can give you a lot of optionality when you’re ready to move on.

If you decide after a few years as an analyst that you want to move into production and stay on the brokerage path, you’ve likely been planting seeds with potential clients for an extended period of time, and you could get up to speed quickly when building your book of business.

And if you decide you want to move onto the principal side of the business in an acquisitions or asset management role, you’ve likely already built strong relationships with your clients, which can often make the transition into these jobs significantly easier.

If you’re willing to work long hours, you’re not quite sure if brokerage is right for you, you want to maximize your earning potential in the first few years of your career, and you want to learn the underwriting and analysis process at the highest levels of the industry, an analyst role in brokerage could be a great option to pursue.

Principal Side Roles at Major Institutions

If you know that brokerage isn’t for you and your long-term goal is to climb the ranks within a major institution, the best place to start you real estate career is on the principal side of the business at an investment management firm.

These are positions at companies like Blackstone, Brookfield, Starwood, and other major PERE firms, where you’re working on individual assets valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, major portfolio acquisitions of dozens of properties in multiple geographic locations, or even the acquisition of entire operating companies.

If your goal is to progress into a leadership position at a major institution, your best chance of getting there is to start your career within this part of the industry, since brand names on a resume are highly valued at these shops.

These roles will generally involve long hours, but also usually offer high salaries and bonus structures that can get significantly bigger as you progress within these firms, and if you decide you want to move to a smaller company in the future, the experience and track record you will have built will help significantly when you’re ready to make the move.

If you want to build a career working within major institutions, you want to work on high-profile, high-value commercial real estate deals, you want to make great money with significant long-term upside, and you’re willing to put in long hours in the office for an indefinite period of time, landing a job at a major institution could be a great goal to pursue.

Principal Side Roles at Small Companies

If you know brokerage isn’t for you, you don’t have aspirations to climb the corporate ladder, and your main long-term goal is to build your own portfolio, you may want to consider working on the principal side of the business for a small to mid-sized investment or development firm in an acquisitions or asset management role.

Working for a smaller shop with anywhere from about 5-25 people on staff can give you great hands-on experience, and will usually get you involved with all aspects of the life cycle of a deal.

This means that you’ll usually have the opportunity to touch every aspect of the business and see the inner workings of the company’s operations, including things like deal sourcing, contract negotiation, due diligence, asset management, construction management, leasing, and even investor relations.

If you know which kind of deals you want to be doing, where you want to be doing those deals, and the size of the properties you want to pursue, finding a small company that’s already doing what you want to be doing is one of the best ways to build the skill sets you’ll need to make those things happen.

With that said, one notable downside of these types of roles is that, since these companies are relatively small and usually in their early stages of growth, you’ll tend to see lower compensation packages in these types of positions. In most cases, base salaries and bonuses for analyst and associate roles at smaller shops can leave a lot to be desired, but the skills you’ll learn at these types of companies can be incredibly valuable to your earning potential over the long-term.

Even if you’re not completely sold on building your own company, these types of firms also tend to reward high performers quickly, since there’s significantly less red tape and bureaucracy than you might see at a larger, more established shop.

If you know you want to build your own portfolio in the future, you don’t do well in corporate environments, you want to get paid to learn in an entrepreneurial setting, and you don’t mind being slightly underpaid for a short period of time to make that happen, working for a smaller firm (that’s doing what you want to be doing) can be a great place to start your career.

How To Prepare For Commercial Real Estate Job Applications

If you’re trying to break into the commercial real estate industry and want to make sure you have the skills you’ll need to land your first job in the business, make sure to check out our all-in-one membership training platform, Break Into CRE Academy.

A membership to the Academy will give you instant access to over 120 hours of video training on real estate financial modeling and analysis, you’ll get access to hundreds of practice Excel interview exam questions, sample acquisition case studies, and you’ll also get access to the Break Into CRE Analyst Certification Exam. This exam covers topics like real estate pro forma and development modeling, commercial real estate lease modeling, equity waterfall modeling, and many other real estate financial analysis concepts that will help you prove to employers that you have what it takes to tackle the responsibilities of an analyst or associate at a top real estate firm.

As always, thanks so much for reading, and make sure to check out the Break Into CRE YouTube channel for more content that can help you take the next step in your real estate career.

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