Managing Risk In Property Development

Whether we realise it or not, managing risk is something we all deal with everyday. For example, the simple process of crossing a street involves a certain degree of risk which we manage without even blinking an eyelid. Imagine for a moment crossing a busy street without looking left and right, without gauging the direction and speed of traffic, and without gauging the distance of the street we are crossing. Thankfully most of us are very good at managing these everyday risks effectively.

But what about managing the risks of something as complex as a property development project? Well, whilst the risks are more numerous and greater in complexity there are still certain measures you can take to manage them effectively. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable risks in performing a property development project and how you can manage them effectively.

Risk #1 – Not Having Enough Knowledge

By far and away the greatest risk in property development is the risk of undertaking a project with insufficient knowledge. I have seen it many times before where individuals undertake their first project with sugar coated expectations of how easy property development is only to find themselves in strife half way down the track because they were not willing to invest in knowledge. Many people will tell you that ignorance is bliss but when it is your money in the deal and your name as guarantor on the loan ignorance can be a very costly thing! So, how can you manage this risk and become more knowledgeable in property development? Well, there are three main options available to you.

Firstly, track down some quality property development books and acquire a comprehensive knowledge of the property development process. Secondly, with this knowledge you should then attend a quality property development workshop to sharpen up the practical application of your knowledge. Thirdly, having read some books and attended a workshop you should then be equipped with the necessary knowledge to undertake your own property development project. For those that lack the necessary confidence to undertake their own project it is possible to team up with an experienced property development manager to manage your first project. This way you can learn ‘on the job’ under the guidance of an experienced property developer and progressively graduate yourself into managing your own projects.

Risk #2 – Paying too Much for Your Development Site

There are few things worse than paying over the odds for a development site and being left with the prospect of bearing all of the risk and performing all of the work necessary to complete the project only to break even or make a tiny profit.

So how do you manage this risk and ensure that you do not pay too much for your development site? Well, it all comes back to the number crunching prior to purchasing the development site. It is absolutely critical that a comprehensive financial feasibility is performed prior to purchasing a development site. Given that a financial feasibility is only as good as the assumptions made in it, it is absolutely critical that you do your homework to ensure the accuracy of your assumptions.

As part of your financial feasibility you can calculate what’s called a residual land value. A residual land value is simply determined by estimating the project’s gross revenue then subtracting the various expenses (excluding the development site) and an adequate profit margin to leave the residual value of the development site. A residual land value will provide you with the maximum amount that you can afford to pay for a development site therefore ensuring you never pay too much.

Risk #3 – Purchasing a Lemon Development Site

Whilst we all understand the risk of purchasing a lemon car, few people realise that it is possible to purchase a lemon development site.

So how do you manage this risk and ensure that you do not purchase a lemon development site. Well, it all comes back to performing a thorough investigation of the development issues of the site, better known as a due diligence analysis. The due diligence analysis may be performed either prior to purchasing the site or as a condition of the contract. Either way, the performance of a thorough due diligence analysis should incorporate each of the following issues:

* environmental and heritage issues (e.g. presence of vegetation protection orders, heritage listed buildings etc.)

* flood issues (e.g. presence of a flood regulation line)

* geotechnical issues (e.g. presence of acid sulphate soil, contaminated soil, underground rocks, underground water, unstable fill etc.)

* mining issues (e.g. impact of mining subsidence)

* service issues (e.g. proximity of services to site, capacity of services for the proposed development etc.)

* stormwater issues (is there a legal point of discharge, if not are adjoining owners amenable etc.)

* title related issues (e.g. presence of caveats, covenants, easements, encumbrances, interest details, administrative advices, unregistered dealings etc.)

* zoning issues (compatibility of current zoning to the proposed use)

Whilst a development site with the necessary local authority permits in place will have overcome most of these issues, it is nonetheless advisable to investigate the various issues as a matter of course. A thorough due diligence analysis can be a rather time consuming process but given the cost involved in getting it wrong it is time very well spent!

Risk #4 – Construction Costs Blow Out

Construction costs are generally the greatest expense component in a property development project. As such, it only takes a slight proportional change in its cost to have a significant impact on the projects bottom line.

So how do you manage this risk and ensure that a blow out in construction costs does not destroy your bottom line? Well, the best way is to ensure that you use a lump sum fixed price contract. A lump sum fixed price contract is a contract where the price is determined by the building contractor which includes all associated costs such as materials, labour and profit margin. As the name suggests, the contract price is fixed from the day the contract is signed. The only things that will vary the price are variations to the contract or fluctuations in provisional or prime cost items. As such you should try to limit the number of variations made to the contract, and whilst nothing can be done to control fluctuations in provisional or prime cost items, it is possible to keep these items to a bare minimum when detailing the contract.

Risk #5 – Building Contractor Goes Bust

Perhaps every developer’s worst nightmare! By this point in a project most of the hard work has been done and you could certainly be forgiven for having your eyes fixed on completing construction and banking the settlement funds. However, all of this can change in an instant if your building contractor hits financial difficulty and cannot proceed with the works.

So how do you manage a risk such as this? Well, whilst circumstances can change quickly in the construction industry there is certainly a lot to be said for using a building contractor with a good reputation and a proven track record. As a developer you should feel free to make enquiries into the building contractor’s project history and financials. After all it is your money in the deal and your name as guarantor on the loan so there should be no reason to feel shy about asking for this sort of information.

Whilst there is no substitute for using a proven reputable building contractor, we are fortunate in Australia in that it is a requirement for building contractors to take out warranty insurance. During construction warranty insurance covers against the building contractor becoming bankrupt or placed into liquidation and against the building contractor failing to complete the works under the contract. After construction it covers against the building contractor failing to fix any defects and against the building suffering from the effects of subsidence or settlement. It is usual practice for building surveyors or local authorities not to issue a building permit until evidence that the building contractor has taken out warranty insurance is provided. Nonetheless, it is prudent that you ensure for yourself that warranty insurance has been taken out.

Risk #6 – Shoddy Construction Work

We have all seen the stories on ‘A Current Affair’ where the hard working Australian family put all of their money into building their dream home only to arrive on handover to something that is not only displeasing to the eye, but a danger to live in. Whilst these stories are very extremist they do demonstrate a very significant risk that if left unmanaged can be potentially disastrous.

So how do you manage this risk and ensure that you are not met at handover with shoddy construction work? Well, once again there is no substitute for using a proven reputable building contractor. For all of the work that goes into a property development project it is the quality of the construction on which your reputation as a developer can live or die. It is therefore absolutely critical that you do your homework on your building contractor. Always insist on getting the building contractor’s project history including contact details for referees from previous projects. This way you can visit the projects and make contact with the previous developers to satisfy yourself as to the whether or not their workmanship meets your standards.

Whilst engaging a proven reputable builder can mitigate this risk to a large extent, you should not simply sit back on your laurels waiting for a phone call when construction is finished. I’m sure you would agree that it is better knowing if something is progressively going wrong and be able to rectify it than to find out at the end that it is beyond rectification. This same rationale applies to construction work and the process of performing regular building inspections.

Throughout the course of a property development project a number of inspections should be performed by various individuals. The structural engineer will need to perform inspections at a few key stages of construction (e.g. footings, slab, framing etc.) to ensure that the approved plans and building regulations are being followed. It is also advisable that you engage your architect or building designer to perform regular inspections to ensure that the works are being performed in accordance with the plans. Once practical completion has been reached you will need to perform a final inspection. By this point, the final inspection will be concerned with minor defects that will be covered under the defects liability period. Generally, the developer and either the development manager, architect or building designer will perform the final inspection.

Whilst the before mentioned risks are by no means an exhaustive list, it should however give you a feel for the more notable risks in property development and how you can manage them effectively. Given the high stakes involved in property development any mismanagement of these risks can prove very costly indeed. If you are not experienced in managing property development projects and do not want to learn the hard way than engage an experienced development manager to act on your behalf. This way you can reap the rewards of being a property developer without becoming another causality to poor risk management.

By Luke Andersen

Partner of Positive Property Strategies and co-author of ‘Residential Real Estate Development: A Practical Guide For Beginners To Experts.’

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