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What They Do

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The school you sit in and the house you live in are the work of developers. At one time, there was no building where you are, only a forest or grass. The land was purchased, zoned and parceled out into lots. Then it was designed, developed and sold to individuals.

The person responsible is the land developer. Along with planners, they decide the best use for land and develop it appropriately.

Daren Fluke is a development consultant in Idaho. Once an investor buys land, that investor approaches him. Fluke is responsible for the regulatory and design side of the project. A developer can't just buy and build. Laws must be adhered to, and the community must be heard.

"I interact with the regulatory agencies on [developers'] behalf, represent the project at public hearings and deal with angry neighbors. I also design projects such as subdivision layouts, apartment complexes or shopping centers," he says.

These are all tasks of developers. Just about the only thing keeping Fluke from being a full-blown land developer is that he doesn't put up the cash to buy the land.

Developers scour the land, says Fluke, looking for good deals. It's not just a matter of finding land, but getting it at a price where you can make money. After regulatory approval is received, which may mean many public hearings with the community, the design stage and then layout begins. Street widths and the size of the lots are decided. Lighting and sewer systems are laid down, he says.

Some developers will oversee all of this from start to finish. Others will walk to the next project once the construction of infrastructure begins.

"It depends on the developer as to how they spend their waking moments," says Fluke. Some will try not to do hands-on stuff, like construction. "Some will want to be around when the bulldozers break ground. It depends on the person."

Many start out in real estate, or like Fluke, in a consulting or planning role.

Jim Siepmann is a land developer in Wisconsin. He warns anyone looking to get involved in this field that it can be tough. "It's a very difficult business to be in. It takes a lot of capital to get involved with it. It has a lot of risk attached to it. You have to first find the land, and it is becoming more difficult to find developable land," he says.

He says government regulations and zoning requirements are time-consuming hurdles as well.

Hazel Christy works in a small city office. "Much of what this small city planning department does revolves around land development, short and long term," she says. Her job entails development, resources management, community development and social planning, she says.

Land developers spend time working outside in the field or on site at one of their projects. They may also spend time in an office negotiating contracts. Many nights are passed in school auditoriums or other government buildings where public hearings are held.

Sometimes the developer must defend his or her project to the community.

"As you build confidences in communities," says Siepmann, "if you do a lot of work in that community and do it well and do 150 percent of what you promise them, above and beyond what you promised, then the community will help you through the process."

Holdups can come if a developer begins a project in a new community. Then, the neighborhood needs to get to know you.

Depending on the variables -- whether a community knows you, what regulation hurdles there are -- a residential project can take from six months to three years to get off the ground. The whole time, says Siepmann, a developer's money is tied up in a project. Plus, they are spending money daily to put in street lights, lay roads and make the area more livable.

And if there is any natural enemy to the developer, it is water, says Siepmann. Managing water can be a nightmare -- controlling it and building the sewer systems, for example. Plus, if it rains regularly, construction comes to a standstill. You can lose days and money because of it.

At a Glance

Decide on the best use for land

  • Many developers start out in real estate
  • You have to be careful to find land at the right price
  • A civil engineering background can be helpful


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