Underdog Mentoring invites field-leading people from different industries to write reflections on their journey, advice they wish they had been given, or anything they want to write.
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Real Estate Reality and the Implications of Covid 19
Part 1: Reflections on 10 years working in Real Estate – A Market of Bust to Boom to Bust Again?
Anonymous Author, UK
29 Apr 2020
About the Author
The author wishes to remain anonymous. The author is a professional Chartered Surveyor, valuer and real estate broker who advises across different sectors of the commercial property market (office, industrial and retail) and on residential development and investment in London and the South East of England. It is hoped that this blog may give some guidance and perspective to students and young professionals who have only been in the industry for a few years, and now face uncertain times.
I started my career in 2008 when I decided to undertake a Masters degree in in commercial real estate. I was just 22 years old at the time. I had completed a degree in history and taken a year out in 2007 to decide what I wanted to do with my life. The real estate industry piqued my interest, the residential and commercial property markets were booming across the UK. This would be a market to make money in I thought. I had an interest in the built environment and I wanted a career where I was not always chained to my desk. I met several surveyors and commercial property agents, they were all good-humoured people and seemed to like their work. I also managed to gain work experience with a local firm of commercial surveyors which I enjoyed and this helped me to cement my decision. After a year or so of working out what path to take with my life I decided this was the career for me!
I debated whether to become involved in the construction side of surveying as a building surveyor or project manager, or as a commercial surveyor dealing with the valuation, sale, finance and asset management of land and buildings ( in Australia this is called a Land Economist). I chose the latter option. I enthusiastically signed up for the Masters and expensive student loans in early 2008, just as the real estate bubble was swelling to its peak. Little did I know the bubble was about to burst a few months later...
Commencing my Masters Degree
On the first day of my degree and following an introductory lecture, my course mates and I headed to the student union for a few beers to get to know each other. When we arrived at the Student Union bar small groups of people were standing around television screens watching quietly.
As we moved closer to a television we saw what had brought the bar to silence – it was 15th September 2008 and Lehman Brothers had just collapsed.
We watched a stream of bankers carrying cardboard boxes of belongings out of the Lehman building in Canary Wharf. By that point the property market had slowed significantly. We joked that we could not have timed our course better! But beyond the jokes and the introductions, I think we were all worried. We were right to be, the property market was about to implode and the whole financial system was close to collapse.
A Year of Rejection
As my course progressed the global economic situation worsened. A crash in real estate became a full blown economic and financial crisis. This was caused by institutions around the world manufacturing and investing in worthless mortgage backed securities (MBS), together with unscrupulous lending and banking practices. Go watch the Big Short for further details if you have not already done so!
The property jobs market was dire, particularly for graduate surveyors. An industry that had once employed hundreds of graduates annually across surveying disciplines was now taking on dozens, if that. I remember hearing one large firm in the City of London had offered jobs to around 120 graduates. All but a handful were redundant on their first day.
I sent off 25 or more applications. The large corporate firms still had their formal graduate hiring procedures and processes open, but in reality they were hiring few if any graduates. I passed a number of initial rounds for one of the largest corporate firms, only to be emailed sometime later that the face to face interviews were to be put on hiatus until further notice. I had the interview some months later, having been told that there were a few roles available. Sadly I did not make the cut.
During the summer of 2009 I left my university city and returned home. I was lucky enough to find a job working for a local telecoms company while I completed my dissertation on the UK office market. I finished my dissertation at the end of the summer 2009 and graduated in January 2010.
By the time I had graduated I was feeling rather depressed by the state of things. In late 2007 / early 2008 I had envisioned that by the summer of 2009, surveying firms would be crawling over themselves to offer me a well-paid graduate job, with a first rate APC programme that would see me qualify as a Chartered Surveyor in 2 years. In reality I was working a dead end data entry telecoms job (although I was thankful for the income), I was living back home with my mother and I was sending out CVs to any property company I came across and getting nowhere. To make matters worse I had amassed close to £20,000 in student loan and credit card debt (this did not include my undergraduate loan of another £10,000). To top it off my girlfriend of 3 years decided to break up with me!
Securing my first job in Real Estate
Despite my circumstances, I did not lose sight of the fact that I wanted a career in real estate. I refused to allow myself to wallow in self-pity (too much anyway) and continued to send out CVs to surveying firms in London and the South East of England. I must have sent over 70 CVs to firms of surveyors, estate agents and property companies. A few of my course mates started to secure positions which encouraged me to not lose hope.
On the 9th February 2010 I sent a CV to the owner a small firm of surveyors and property managers in London. I received the following response:
You are clearly a first class candidate but I very much regret we have no opening at present
Do keep pressing as I am sure you will find a position
I was disappointed, but happy to get some positive feedback. I filed the email into the long list of rejections, no responses and get lost letters.
The next day I received the following from the same surveyor:
With reference to your e mail of yesterday I thought I would drop you a line.
We are presently looking for a part time filing clerk - but it could lead to something more…………..
I do not want to waste your time but if you want to discuss this then please give me a call.
I was delighted! After months of trying, this was my first opportunity to work for a surveying firm. However, the job was as offered, a filing clerk job. This was not ideal. The job was for three days a week and paid minimum wage, which would barely cover my commuting costs from where I lived at home. It was also a lot less money that I was receiving in my telecoms job. Nonetheless, I knew I had to get more experience on my CV if I was to get anywhere.
Earning such low wages was very difficult, but I was fortunate – after a month or two a graduate surveyor decided to leave the company and I stepped into his shoes. I finally had a proper graduate role that paid a wage I could live on. After 6 months with the company I decided that I wanted to pursue a career focusing on commercial agency / brokerage work in the City of London. Utilising the experience and skills that I had accumulated in this role I secured a new job after sending out my CV to just a few employers. I ended up spending around 7 years at this firm and became head of the Investment and Agency team in 2014 when I was just 28 years old.
In around 4 years my minimum wage filing clerk job led me to becoming a Chartered Surveyor and a head of department. I had been lucky, but my situation proves that the smallest and most unpromising opportunities can snowball into success.
Is this 2008 / 2009?
At the time of posting this blog I have no idea if the current worldwide lockdown will result in a similar property market crash to what was experienced in 2008/2009. However, it does not look good. Many of the measures that were utilised in the last crash, such as lowering interest rates have been exhausted. If there is a downturn similar to the Great Recession then unfortunately you can expect there to be significant disruption to hiring for the next year or two.
If you cannot find a job in surveying or a property related role, then look for another role which might give you transferable skills to support you in securing a graduate job in the future. If you have sent out 30 CVs and got nowhere, find the resilience to send out another 30 and seek to upskill whenever possible.
The surveying industry needs surveyors. The average age of a RICS Surveyor is in the order of 55 years old. There have been significant technological advances in the industry in the last decade, from advanced property management and valuation software to utilising drones to survey buildings. Blockchain technology may transform the industry entirely. New talent and innovation will be required from a diverse range of backgrounds and experience, so don’t give up!