Successful property development requires teamwork under decisive leadership.
As the developer, you’re responsible for every single decision – this complete level of accountability can be daunting, especially given the breadth and depth of challenges involved. That’s why it’s so important to assemble a team of experienced professionals who you can rely on for expert advice.
This article is about the key professionals that you’ll need on your team in order to purchase a good development site, and to attain quality plans and permits.
1. I’m not taking the piss when I say that the first person to appoint is a Buyer’s Advocate.
Why? Because purchasing well is the single most important determinant of success, and the primary job of a Buyer’s Advocate is to ensure that you purchase a quality site. A good buy doesn’t simply mean a good price…
You want to purchase in a neighborhood that’s likely to see above-market future median $ price growth – I’ve overseen developments where as much as half of the profits were attributed to price increases in just 2 years.
You’ll need to effectively determine the development potential of sites, and ensure the design scenarios match with end-buyer demand (e.g. why build ten 1-bed apartments where nobody wants to buy them?).
You must build an accurate project feasibility study that accounts for all costs – purchase, planning, holding, construction, etc. – and for likely resale values, based on in-depth analyses of the areas sales and trends.
All of this time-consuming work needs to be done prior to purchase, and requires considerable experience and intellectual property to do properly.
Lastly, and most obviously, a Buyer’s Advocate should be able to source off-market properties for you, and negotiate purchases effectively At Auction or via Private Sale. I strongly recommend considering a licensed professional who can help you minimize the risks of development and maximize your return on investment.
2. The second person you need is a Town Planner.
People often mistake a Town Planner with a Council Planning Officer; a Town Planner works for you as a businessperson in the private sector, whereas a Council Planning Officer represents the interests of the local Council government. It’s common for a Town Planner to have worked as a Council Planning Officer in the past, so as to gain intimate knowledge into the internal mechanisms of government planning approvals.
Town Planners are highly educated, and are the best equipped to advise on the development potential of a site. But their advice is rarely cheap. An experienced developer will have good relationships with Town Planners, built off the back of multiple projects and referrals, and will be able to get free, informal feedback on sites under consideration prior to purchase. Often, site potential is clear without having to trouble a Town Planner, but it can be worthwhile running options by him/her.
I purchased a site for a client two weeks ago, where the feasibility stacked up well with 3 townhouses; I had a feeling that 4 townhouses was possible, despite feedback from Council, so I called my Town Planner, and after examining it together for 15 minutes it became clear that our initial designs should push for 4; the ROI went from 20% to nearly 30%.
In addition to advice prior to purchase, Town Planners provide valuable input throughout the design stage. Don’t involve them in the detail, but make sure you run them by the concepts before your first engagement with Council – they should be able to identify both the key risks and the areas where it’s worth pushing the envelope.
Finally, Town Planners prepare the Planning Reports required as part of the final application. These include photos, research into relevant planning precedents and site context, reference to relevant State and Council planning policies, etc. They effectively put things into a language that Councils appreciate, thereby saving them time and effort (think grease on the wheels!).
3-4. The next two professionals to bring on board cover similar areas, so I group them together: Land Surveyor and Arborist.
A Land Surveyor maps everything on the block and all relevant info from neighbouring properties: dwellings, windows, roof heights, trees, slopes, fences, utility pits, etc. He also establishes the boundaries of the property (over decades and multiple fences, sometimes the boundaries on the ground differ slightly to what they legally should be). For trickier sites, with potential issues relating to access/location of services, it can be useful to talk to a Land Surveyor prior to purchase.
An Arborist uses the survey report, and identifies the species, heights, diameters, and health of all vegetation on the block. They provide a full report, complete with retention values of each tree, and structural root and protection zones. This report is critically important to the development design, as it identifies which trees will likely need to stay, and how close you can build to them. If there are significant trees on the site, it’s absolutely worthwhile seeking informal advice from an Arborist prior to purchase – particularly if overlays exist that will restrict tree removal.
Before any serious design work can be done, you need a land survey and an arborist report – getting these done is a top priority once a Contract of Sale is signed.
5. The last main professional to bring on your team is a Draftsman.
For a number of reasons, I never use an Architect; mainly, it’s about fees, incentives, and creative license (I may write more about this in another piece). Ensure that the Draftsman you use has a lot of experience in multi-townhouse design, so that they understand key aspects like site coverage, garden space requirements, setbacks, etc. A good Draftsman should be clear about the parameters you need to design within, as well as the boundaries you can reasonably push to maximize the development potential of the site.
Your initial efforts with the Draftsman should focus mainly on the orientation of each dwelling: which ways they face, where their driveways and garages are located, how the finished floor levels sit in relation to ground levels outside, where the secluded private open spaces go in relation to indoor living areas, how close to trees, neighbors, and streets you will build, etc.
From there, you’ll progress to internal layouts (e.g. location and sizes of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, etc.). Then, onto window placements, external materials and colors, and landscape design.
A bit of back-and-forth with your Town Planner and with the Council Planning Officer, and you’ll eventually lock in a plan that has a reasonably high chance of permit approval. Or, you’ll find yourself in a position where the advice from your Draftsman and Town Planner differ from that of the Council Planning Officer; this is where serious questions arise around risk, timeframes, holding costs, ROI, etc.
Do you push forward with plans in the face of Council reservations, knowing that a VCAT hearing will likely be required, or do you accede to Council concerns, and take a hit on resale values and ROI?