Students Explore Real World of Real Estate in Capstone Course

Posted: December 16, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: December 17, 2013 at 6:44 am

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By Preston Williams

real estate capstone class

Bob Wulff, director of the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship and the MA in Real Estate Development program, works with his students to practice a presentation for the Sasha Bruce Youthwork organization as part of the capstone project. Photo by Alexis Glenn

At the onset of their Capstone course in August, seven master’s students in the Real Estate Development Program eagerly doled out properties, almost as if they were embarking on a fast-version game of Monopoly.

These packets, however, included information about real tracts and real structures. The ultimate outcome was not to fill a board with hotels, but to fill real estate pro formas with financial numbers and development designs.

The School of Management students’ assignment: Assess the real estate value of nine Washington, D.C., properties owned by Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY), a nonprofit that serves the needs of at-risk youth and their families, and then advise SBY officials as to the highest and best use of their properties from a real estate market perspective, as opposed to a social services delivery perspective.

During the three-month project, the Real Estate Development students earned invaluable real-world experience as their master’s program came to a satisfying end. They orally presented a detailed report to SBY officials in early December, providing SBY, at no charge, with tens of thousands of dollars of real estate assessment and a portfolio plan for how SBY might monetize some portion of their properties if deemed beneficial to the organization’s central mission of serving homeless and at-risk youth.

“In real estate, you tend to think of the tall office building or maybe an apartment building or shopping mall,” student Becky Oliver says. “This one was not all dollars and cents. You’re dealing with young people’s lives. So you not only have to think about the basics — how is the building built, where is it located — but you really have to think about how it’s going to be used.”

Each student handled every aspect of the property assessment, gleaning information from professionals whom instructors Robert Wulff and Michael Curran brought in as consultants — among them a civil engineer, an architect, a general contractor and a zoning attorney.

“We were able to go out and speak to experts in the field,” student Kaveh Safa says. “It was nice to get a feeling for what it would be like if you were a developer sitting down with a builder and seeing how the big picture works.”

The students’ three-hour class each Wednesday evening, held around an Enterprise Hall conference table, was only a fraction of the time they devoted to the assignment both in meetings and at the sites. It was time well spent. In fact, Wulff and Curran thought their first group Capstone project went so well that they plan to do one every semester to provide a similar collaborative experience for their students. They already have property lined up for the spring semester.

Perhaps Oliver, Safa, Nick Rubino, Bryan James, Mariana Sonu, Lina Hassan and Chris Churmusi will reconnect around other conference tables during their budding business careers.

“To us, this is the way the Capstone should be,” Wulff says. “It should be a group effort, and they should function as a consulting team would inside a development company, because that’s what we’re training them to be. This is what developers do. This is how they work. This is the perfect end to their graduate program.”

And the start of a different way for SBY to handle its assets. The organization that has spurred new beginnings for so many in need now has a new financial beginning of its own, one that could enable them to provide even more transitional living spaces and social services to Washington, D.C., youth and their families.

“Every one of us was impressed with both the sheer quantity of work that was done and no less with the very high quality,” says Travis Brown, a member of the SBY Board of Directors.

“The students took a complex, messy, poorly organized set of data and created a first-rate survey of what SBY owns, and an analysis of the options for that property.  It is no overstatement to say that they have brought a level of thought and financial analysis to the real estate portfolio as a whole that has not existed before.”

Write to Preston Williams at pwilli20@gmu.edu

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