Cover image for The real estate game : the intelligent guide to decision-making and investment
The real estate game : the intelligent guide to decision-making and investment
Poorvu, William J., 1935-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Free Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xiv, 322 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Added Author:
Format :


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HD1375 .P6643 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The Real Estate Game is a comprehensive guide to successful real estate investment from one of the masters in the field. Drawing upon four decades of experience developing, owning, and managing properties and on almost thirty years of teaching at the Harvard Business School, William J. Poorvu offers an insider's perspective on how to make smart decisions about real estate.

The real estate "game" is played by people, and it's the stories of real people that make Poorvu's introduction to the industry colorful and interesting. You will meet players ranging from real estate moguls to small-scale developers to individual investors in exotic investment instruments. Their stories evolve throughout the book and illustrate how these people--with all their complicated needs, talents, and motives--fit into the larger process and context.

In clear and nontechnical language, Poorvu explains how variables--players, properties, capital markets, and the external environment--come together to influence the shape and outcome of a real estate deal. He explains the time frame for different kinds of real estate investments and walks the reader through the key "periods of play" in the real estate game: concept, commitment, development, operation, reward, and reinvestment.

The Real Estate Game introduces a simple but powerful "back-of-the-envelope" technique for analyzing the financial implications of a potential deal. Using this tool and others, Poorvu shows readers how to use direct investments, syndicates, and REITs to get into the real estate game across a broad range of property types: residential, office, hotel, industrial, and retail.

Offering unique insight into the ways that developers and investors can create value, The Real Estate Game is both a perfect introduction for the novice and an invaluable overview for the experienced professional.

Author Notes

William J. Poorvu (left) is a successful real estate investor and developer and heads the real estate program at the Harvard Business School.
Jeffrey L. Cruikshank (right) is a partner in Kohn, Cruikshank, Inc., a Boston business communications firm, and the coauthor of several business books.

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

Poorvu is a Boston real-estate developer who teaches an elective course in real estate at the Harvard Business School. Like his earlier collection of case studies, The Real Estate Challenge (1996), this new book comprises course material. To emphasize the competitive aspects of real estate, Poorvu compares the business to a game. With an informal style, he outlines the components that determine the rules of this game: capital markets, the players, properties, and the external environment. After explaining the basic financial analyses necessary to make decisions, Poorvu contrasts four ways to invest in real estate: buying property directly, investing in private syndications, multiproperty funds, and public real-estate securities. He also compares the more challenging development phase of real estate with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the operations phase. Finally, he recommends how and when to "harvest" or recoup value that has been added to a deal. Grounded in theory and practice, Poorvu's advice stands out in a category filled with superficial, get-rich-quick guides. --David Rouse



INTRODUCTION This is a book about the real estate business, and how you can increase your chances of being successful in it. The book explains, in simple terms, how you can take advantage of emerging opportunities in the property market when the capital markets -- and the world in general -- are going through dramatic changes. It should help you whether you're buying a small apartment house, or are involved in a large, multi-use project. The Real Estate Game uses the analogy of a game to capture some of the complex and unpredictable interactions of the real estate field; it also lays out the "rules" that shape the game. It identifies the key players, and how they play their parts. It also follows the game through the distinct stages of a property's life cycle, from the initial conception of a project to its "harvesting." It uses a series of recurring case studies to illustrate key points -- and, I hope, to make the concepts more human and interesting by placing them in a practical, real-life context. The book also draws on my experiences as a teacher and a practitioner in the field of real estate. For the past three decades, I've taught the real estate course at the Harvard Business School. This is an elective class for second-year students, which means that since they don't have to be there, they must have some enthusiasm for the field. In the initial class session, I try to do two things with their enthusiasm. First, I try to temper it a bit. I tell them that real estate is not for everyone. If you want to be a passive coupon-clipper, real estate is not for you. If you're not interested in paying attention to a plethora of small but important details, in getting your hands dirty, in mixing it up with a wide range of people, then real estate is almost certainly not for you. The other, somewhat contradictory thing I try to do with their enthusiasm is to encourage it. I've been in real estate for four decades -- I tell them -- and there is no more interesting, stimulating, or exciting field in which to make your living and your career. It's a field where you can make a difference. For example, on a local level, you can build something that is architecturally significant, that makes a neighborhood better, that creates wonderful and humane spaces in which people can work or play. You can get to know all about how your city or town works, and use that knowledge to make good things happen. You can work extremely hard to create something, and at the end of that process, you have the sheer delight of going inside that thing and walking around in it. This concreteness, this immediacy, had great appeal for me when I was a young Harvard MBA, and still does today. My sense is that today's students are equally drawn to this aspect of real estate. Going up a few levels, from the micro to the macro, you can change the way a city or an entire region operates. You can make deserts bloom. You can create new investment vehicles, and steer huge amounts of capital in innovative new directions. To simplify greatly, today's real estate world consists of two mostly separate universes. One is the universe of individual properties managed by local firms and financed by means of a project-specific mortgage. The other consists of the large, mostly public real estate investment and service firms operating nationally, or even globally. These firms manage dozens (or even hundreds) of properties, often in a range of property types and markets. No matter which universe you inhabit (I tell my students), you are very likely to work with all kinds of interesting people. Often, you will work with them in unexpected, antihierarchical ways. Not long ago, I was talking on the telephone with a prominent elected official from a nearby state when an emergency call came in from my plumbing contractor on line two. I told the politician I'd have to call him back. Real estate is also exciting because it brings together all sorts of specific activities under one roof, ready to be managed by skilled professionals. At the Harvard Business School, we refer to this as the "general management" track. If you don't think you'd relish several decades of working your way up the ladder in corporate accounting, for example -- if you would rather try your hand at doing and managing a broad range of activities, or at least managing the people who are performing those tasks -- then real estate may be a good choice for you. If you are seeking financial reward, real estate can be a very good game to play. But to succeed you have to play it well, especially when larger trends turn against you. This requires flexibility. Entrepreneurs in real estate (as well as in other fields) are often narrowly focused on their specific opportunities. As a result, they often lose sight of the macro-environment, which can sometimes turn hostile indeed. The number of real estate moguls tends to wax and wane as larger economic trends either favor or don't favor the industry. In 1988, in a good phase of the real estate cycle, 87 members of the Forbes 400 were described as having made their money in real estate (up from 48 in 1983). But on the down side of the cycle, in 1993 there were only 32 real estate moguls. Five years later, the number had dropped to 27. And as a last thought in this opening section: if you enjoy taking risks, real estate may not be the best game for you to choose. In my experience, real estate entrepreneurs don't perceive of themselves as great risk takers, but instead as risk managers. In fact, they believe (rightly or wrongly) that they can calculate and deal with the many types of risks inherent in most real estate projects. One thing I hope to do in this book -- in addition to identifying opportunity -- is to help you spot risks, develop strategies for coping with risks, and assess whether those strategies give you both enough protection and an adequate return. Aiming at Usefulness Most existing real estate books don't help the professional who wants to be involved in -- or at least understand -- real estate. This book attempts to be different. It is designed to help you, personally, make decisions in real estate, by showing how successful practitioners actually think about and solve problems. Alternatively, it is designed to help you understand the decisions that other professionals are making at every stage of the process, and what might be motivating them. I hope this will make the book interesting and useful for people in allied professions, such as architecture, public-sector management, banking, law, and construction. This book won't qualify you to take the real estate board examinations in any state. It won't make a technocrat out of you. Another point that I make to my students, and that I'll make in this book at regular intervals, is that real estate doesn't require a great deal of specialized education. Common sense can carry you a long way. Yes, there are concepts that one has to understand, such as the math skills that you will call upon almost every day in your professional life. But if you have mastered introductory algebra, you have all the training you need to do the kinds of "back of the envelope" calculations that are necessary for success in real estate. But even the simplest calculations can be dangerous. Why? Because you still have to make the right assumptions, which is part of what this book is about. For example: Let's say you take a ten-year spreadsheet and assume that rents will go up by 5 percent per year, and at the end of ten years, you're going to sell the property at a very favorable capitalization rate and make a lot of money. Sounds good, right? Everyone should play this game! But have you taken into account all of the problems you're going to have just getting the project going? Are you really going to end up owning that property for the full ten-year period? And what level of interest rates and inflation (or deflation) did you plug into your spreadsheet calculations? As in most fields of business, you can make the projections come out any way you want. Most people want their projects to happen, and therefore jigger the numbers to fit -- either consciously or unconsciously. Most people, too, make the assumption that whatever is true today is going to be true tomorrow. In the real estate game both of these assumptions can be fatal, and yet, they're made all the time. As my colleague John Vogel (at Dartmouth's Tuck Business School) likes to point out, real estate is an industry characterized by ten-year cycles and five-year memories. War Stories vs. Case Studies The following pages will include a lot of what might be characterized as "war stories." I prefer to think of them as case studies, used to illustrate what can go right (and what can go wrong) in real estate. Sometimes I will cite my own experiences in the real estate field, mostly to clarify a specific point. It seems more appropriate to highlight my own numerous missteps than to beat up on my colleagues and competitors. But when the examples are particularly instructive, I will also invoke the lessons of some of the biggest players in real estate in this century. Bill Zeckendorf, for example, was one of the most creative and productive developers who ever played the real estate game. He gave us Kips Bay in New York City, Mile High City in Denver, Century City in Los Angeles, Place Ville Marie in Montreal -- and eventually had most of his properties taken away from him. It's important to understand what Zeckendorf got wrong (for example, getting too far out in front of reality and overleveraging his properties), as well as what he got right (a vision of the future of our downtowns that was uncannily accurate). We've recently seen more or less the same phenomenon replayed at London's Canary Wharf, developed by the ambitious Reichmann family of Canada. In addition, I will draw on what I've learned through teaching real estate at the Harvard Business School for more than thirty years. One reason why I chose to teach at the Harvard Business School in the first place was that HBS emphasizes the use of cases in the classroom -- small "slice-of-life" stories about real people in real business situations (although sometimes the identifying particulars are disguised). In my experience as a teacher, the case method preserves the true complexity of business situations, including real estate deals. It prevents me and my students from reducing real estate to a simple problem set -- in other words, a simplified collection of standard techniques to employ and punch lists to check off. The case method also allows me to adapt the course quickly in response to changing conditions or emerging topics of interest. For example, we have recently added cases on projects in Mexico, Russia, and China. We have tackled new housing options. We can (and do) accommodate rapidly evolving markets, changing tax policies, and dramatic restructurings of financial institutions. In some cases, the players are disguised to allow either more complete candor, or a gathering together of several themes into one composite story. I'll take the same approach in this book, disguising certain individuals involved in specific deals. This seems only fair. They didn't know, when they went into business with me, that they would wind up in a book one day. I have tried to write The Real Estate Game less like a rule book and more like a friendly guidebook to an interesting, sometimes exotic land. I will help you spot the foreign in the familiar, and the familiar in the foreign. I will help you avoid some of the pitfalls into which some of the most prominent people in real estate have fallen -- some of them more than once. My belief is that learning to be a "value investor" -- that is, buying at the right price at the right time, and finding creative ways to enhance the value of what you own -- is the best long-term strategy for real estate. How to make this work in practice for you is the main theme and purpose of this book. I will debunk some of the truisms that you may have heard about real estate. For example: It's really not just a narrow focus on "Location, location, location." Instead, I'd say your rule of thumb ought to be something like, "Learn the dynamics of how locations change, and figure out how that knowledge can help you buy and sell properties." And yes, changes in capital markets influence the behavior of real estate players. But what is important is that you have a choice as to whether you want to follow the crowd. I'll constantly recommend taking a broader perspective. For example, I think real estate is as much about people as it is about property. It's people who add value or subtract value in the real estate game -- whether by design or by accident. And people are only one of the many factors that can make the difference between success and failure in real estate. In the following pages, I'll introduce you to many more such factors. Copyright © 1999 by William J. Poorvu and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank "The Game" I don't mean to make the real estate game sound mechanistic, because that's not how I've experienced it personally, nor how other people have described their experiences to me. What is important to understand is that there is a very real structure to the real estate game. It is never played exactly the same way twice-but that doesn't mean that there are no rules. What matters is where you begin the game, which card you pull (of the cards available to you), and what you do to create competitive advantage with that first card (given the options that are still open to you after picking it) and with the subsequent cards you pull. Investing Your Own Money Let's look first at Charlie Leonard, a former student at the Harvard Business School. (This is not his real name.) Leonard had inherited $25,000, and was looking for a promising place to invest that money. He decided that he wanted to "get into real estate." To put this in the terminology of our game, Leonard pulled a "Player, small" card from the Player deck. The game begins. Leonard knew that his lack of experience and relatively small amount of capital were disadvantages. Because he had a very limited amount of cash, he would have to borrow money to meet most of his costs. In real estate, high leverage translates into a higher capital risk. He therefore picked a second card by settling on an area-Boston's historic Beacon Hill-which was well accepted by both prospective tenants and lenders ("Property, conservative"). After some careful investigation, he concluded that from a competitive standpoint, he would be better off rehabilitating an existing property than starting from scratch. But by taking this route, Leonard knew, he was venturing into an arena (rehabilitation) about which he knew very little, and in which the risk/reward ratio can quickly turn against you. Investing Your Own Time Our second example involves Ben Alexander, another former student at the Harvard Business School (also disguised). Alexander began with an inherited building on an excellent site near the State University at Collegetown. He entered the game, in other words, with a card drawn (or dealt to him) from the "Property" deck. He was an undergraduate at the university when he inherited the building-a modest frame house-from a distant relative. He rented the house to some fellow undergraduates, and put some time and money into fixing it up, and gradually educated himself on the property's potential for development. Using free help provided by architecture students at the university, and calling upon the advice offered by others willing to talk to him, Alexander put together an ambitious plan for redeveloping the property. By definition, he was a small player, but he traded in his "Property, existing" card for a "Property, new" card. He developed plans for a multiunit apartment building, aimed at satisfying some of the high demand in the area for off-campus student housing. Alexander's plans were persuasive, and he was able to secure preliminary financial backing ("Capital markets, availability of funding"). But a series of delays set in, and things began to look less promising. Other would-be developers had perceived the same opportunity that Alexander did, and their projects got underway sooner, driving up construction costs and threatening future rents. Meanwhile, the economy was beginning to overheat, and inflation began rising rapidly ("Capital markets, cost of money"). Eventually, Alexander's financing evaporated, and he was forced to abandon his plan. He was left with a deteriorating, underused building. Investing Other People's Money A different real estate game was played by Cameron Sawyer, who was the subject of a field-study report by one of my second-year students several years ago. My faculty colleagues and I got interested in his story, and wrote a case study based upon it that is used every year in our real estate course. As is true for many subjects of Harvard Business School cases, Sawyer comes to Boston every year when the case about him is taught, so I've gotten to know him in that context. His story is only thinly disguised. In the late 1980s, Sawyer was working in the real estate department of an Atlanta-based law firm. He was struck by how many people in the booming Atlanta area were making a lot of money in real estate. They also seemed to be enjoying themselves. Drawing on his previous business connection with a Russian >>migr>> in Germany-who argued persuasively that Russia was the next field of immense opportunities in real estate-Sawyer decided that he would go into real estate in Russia. Let's say he first pulled an "External factors, markets-in-transition" card. Next, of course, he had to define himself creatively as a player. He went to Russia and went to work for somebody else while he learned the language. He then found a competent and well connected local partner-a move which is almost a prerequisite in international real estate deals-and they undertook a series of small projects for others, mostly aimed at testing the market. His first project involved a joint-venture land lease agreement, which by its nature minimized his need for capital ("Capital markets, constrained"). On that site he proposed to build an office building, which eventually was backed by Italian money ("Capital markets, less constrained"). Although this project took longer than expected, it was ultimately successful. Now Sawyer is putting together a suburban retail project that he is trying to prelease. Sawyer is well into the real estate game. Will he survive the turbulence of the Russian economy at the turn of the century? He expects to, but that game is still being played out. Building Businesses At the other end of the real estate spectrum, far from the individual entrepreneurs just starting out, are people like Bill Sanders. In the early 1990s, Sanders-who earlier had founded and then sold his interest in one of the premier national real estate service firms, LaSalle Partners-decided that publicly held real estate investment trusts, or REITs, were very likely once again to become a major source of funds focused on real estateinvestment. (REITs are a cyclical phenomenon that comes to the fore about once a decade.) To be sure, Sanders had a well-established record as a player in the real estate game. But I like to think of him as pulling a "Capital markets, flush" card as he got into his current version of the game. Based on the strong demand for real estate investment opportunities from institutional and wealthy individual investor at a time when properties in general were undervalued, Sanders created a series of REITs, each designed to hold a different property type. His interests in these REITs were owned by a master corporation, which reinvested much of the distributions from the REITs into new start-up companies. These companies, in turn, became major players in their particular real estate niches. By moving early and quickly, Sanders developed his company, Security Capital, into one of the largest real estate firms in the country. Today, he plays a new and challenging game based on his recent success-a game focused on managing the complexity of what he has already assembled, on making investors understand a very complicated business, and on satisfying the growth expectations of Wall Street. He is trying, with some difficulty, to prove that the parent company is more valuable than the sum of it component investments. Playing the Game Your Way These four stories make two somewhat paradoxical points. First, the real estate game lends itself to endless variations. Second, the structure of that game is fundamentally consistent. If you play, sooner or later you will have to deal with four elements: ... Properties ... Capital markets ... Players ... External environment Equally important, you will have to improvise to adjust your real estate game to your very specific situation. Much has been written about the rules governing properties and capital markets. You may have to rewrite some of these rules as you go along-and if you do, you'll have to be well aware of the limits on the kinds of rules you can write. Taken from THE REAL ESTATE GAME (The Free Press; 1999) by William J. Poorvu with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank. Excerpted from The Real Estate Game: The Intelligent Guide to Successful Investing and Decision-Making by William J. Poorvu, Jeffrey L. Cruikshank All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. v
Introductionp. ix
Chapter 1 The gamep. 1
Chapter 2 Using numbers in real estatep. 13
Chapter 3 From concept to commitmentp. 44
Chapter 4 From commitment to closingp. 82
Chapter 5 Syndications and REITsp. 108
Chapter 6 Developmentp. 145
Chapter 7 Operationsp. 191
Chapter 8 The harvestp. 225
Chapter 9 Back to the gamep. 238
Appendix A Note on property typesp. 259
Appendix B Commercial real estate due-diligence checklistp. 293
A Back-of-the-Envelope Glossaryp. 299
Indexp. 318