Real Estate Decision-making: Use Better Tools or Find Better Craftsmen?

August 24, 2011

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1. What’s the best way to make better real estate decisions?

Make better real estate decision-makers.

And by the way, don’t try to replace them with mathematical models.

2. How do you make better real estate decision makers?

Train them.

And by the way, don’t train them to be better bureaucrats; train them to recognize the difference between good locations and bad locations.

3. What’s the hot trend among chain operators today to make better real estate decisions?

Replacing decision-makers with mathematical models and training the remaining ones to be better bureaucrats.

The best real estate deal makers are not 25 year olds with MBAs. They have been in the business for 15 years or more and have forgotten more about evaluating sites than the youngsters have learned. The good ones have learned to use technology to work more efficiently and bring valuable information to their fingertips instead of guessing about things that can be known.

Why does it take so long to get good at site selection? The best athletes peak in their late 20's and early 30's. Some of the most prolific and creative computer programmers are under 30. The maximum age for a fighter pilot is between 27 and 30 years old depending on the branch of service.

The reason it takes so long is that it’s complex and the human brain needs to see many examples of what works and doesn’t work in order to develop a framework for evaluating a new site.

Does that mean that real estate deal makers and investment committee members should have a minimum age requirement to participate in decision making? Of course not.

However, there is a lot that can be done to accelerate and enhance the learning process for all of the players involved in the development and optimization of the bricks and mortar network.

Back in 1993, I quit my job as Director of Acquisitions for a commercial real estate firm because I was obsessed with GIS. The industry was still picking up the pieces from the Savings and Loan debacle and repentant souls everywhere swore they would do more research before investing next time, much like a partygoer who promised to never drink again. This seemed like the perfect time to create a software-based real estate research system that would help investors make better decisions. One morning in 1994, I was attending a breakfast to hear an update on the commercial real estate market (“stay alive ‘til ‘95” was the theme) and I cornered the guest speaker, Hugh Kelly, to ask his opinion of my game plan. Hugh had already achieved “luminary” status as chief economist for Landauer Associates, so I asked him if he thought that the commercial real estate industry was ready to use computer-based research tools. His response was something like this: "They certainly should, but I’m concerned about who can effectively use GIS for this purpose because you need to be a combination of an economist, a cartographer, a computer geek, a desktop publisher, a statistician and a real estate expert to produce meaningful results."

Wow, I was depressed. I hadn’t met a single person that fit that description in the commercial real estate industry, and I certainly didn’t have those qualifications. Now I look back on 17 years of building, selling and supporting these tools I understand how challenging it can be to use this technology in decision processes.

However, even a visionary like Hugh Kelly couldn’t have imagined that the Internet and software technology would make it possible to put easy-to-use maps, demographic information and aerial imagery on every desktop practically for free!

So now we have a chance to rethink this. We still need economists, cartographers, computer geeks, desktop publishers, statisticians and real estate experts; but we don’t need to combine them all into one superhuman individual who creates simulations of the marketplace for us as we evaluate real estate opportunities. We can create information systems that provide rich visualization and reporting tools for the real estate experts to use on their laptops, tablets and smartphones.

We can train students and seasoned professionals to enhance their “mental models” as they draw upon databases that contain examples of winning and losing investments from the past. 

The winners of the next decade will find the right combination of people, processes and tools to maximize their return on capital invested in real estate. The cornerstone of their success will be training everyone in the business, from the CEO, to the VP Real Estate, to the research team, to the dealmakers in the field, to combine their experience and the remarkable power of their brains with timely, digestible information about opportunities.

Ed. note: This article originally appeared on Jim Stone's blog, realanalogies.


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