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How to Break into Commercial Real Estate

by Deena Zimmerman

Deena Zimmerman HeadshotLet’s face it; Anybody you talk to is going to tell you something different about how they broke into Commercial Real Estate. However, at the end of the day, it all comes down to a few basic rules of thumb to help guide you through the sometimes-daunting world that is Commercial Real Estate. These have been my guiding force, and oftentimes, my lifeline....

Set the right expectations and goals for yourself from day one.
Seems easy enough, right? This is where you take a hard look in the mirror and tell yourself honestly that you are going to put 100% effort into this and plan accordingly-meaning financially. Budget and plan for the learning curve you are about to embark on. Plan for the fact that you will make ZERO money in year one. Commercial transactions can be far more wide ranging and diverse than buying or selling a home; The average transaction time can be much longer. The fastest deal I've ever done took 4 months. Some have taken a year, two years, sometimes longer.

Be the best junior broker you can be.
Find a reputable company that specializes in commercial real estate and has a strong and successful training program. Join a team if possible, and/or find someone who needs a junior broker. By finding the right seasoned pro who will take you under their wing and show you the ropes, you will set yourself up for long-term success and profitability. It will help you speed up the learning curve so you can hit the ground running. This pro should have you present at client meetings and showings, give you the ability to listen in to vital phone calls, and involve you in the process the entire way in order to learn hands-on.

Find your niche.
Commercial brokerage has many facets to specialize in. Retail, office, industrial, multi-family, investment sales, the list goes on. If you try to dabble in everything, you will become the master of nothing. Choosing one or two specialties to focus on will make you the expert in your niche and will further enhance your reputation in the industry.

Networking, Education & Associations
Add these three together, choose wisely, manage your time accordingly, and there is no doubt you will be a more successful, wiser, and informed commercial real estate agent.

Network within your industry and join area groups like the builders association, local neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce, and commercial trade associations, such as ICSC, SIOR, IREM and CCIM.

I have also found great personal financial success networking in "opposite industries". I attend numerous residential real estate events and functions, as oftentimes I am one of the only, if not THE only, commercial practitioner in the room. This benefits me in two ways.

First, by understanding the residential real estate market and trends, I am able to inform my clients on which emerging markets/neighborhoods to focus on when buying or leasing commercial property. By attending the various functions and seminars, and market updates in residential real estate, I become more well-rounded and a true asset to my clients.

Second, who do you think these folks I am networking with are going to call when they need a commercial agent?! I have a 100% referral business and this is the number one reason why.

There are a number of incredible educational opportunities for you to expand your understanding and expertise. Some can be found within your local association as well as through NAR. CCIM and IREM are affiliates of NAR and have some of the most challenging, diverse and in-depth courses out there.

Once you have figured out your area of specialty, join a commercial trade association that focuses on that area and get involved on a local level. Be sure to make the time and budget for their regional and annual conferences. I specialize in retail, so I am an active member of International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), and the network of people I have met nationally has played a vital role in my success and growth. .

While commercial real estate can seem daunting, it’s one of the most rewarding fields to specialize in. By taking the time to find the right brokerage, trade associations and educational platforms to align yourself with, you will be setting yourself up for great success and longevity.


Serving as a vice president in the Sperry Van Ness Chicago office, Deena’s focus is in tenant representation, specializing in finding high quality sites throughout Chicagoland and surrounding areas for national operators, franchisees, and first-time entrepreneurs.

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