Tow planners are the creators of council areas, responsible for the way cities are shaped.
They can also help investors with small developments.
If you see the development site of your dreams, or a big corner block with potential, the first thing you usually try to discover is exactly what can be done with the site.
But what if you’re not entirely sure?
Who do you call to find out if you can potentially get big bucks out of a site, before you even ask the agent for a contract?
Enter a town planner, or perhaps more accurately, the city shaper and even hand holder when it comes to all types of developments and plans, big and small.
Planzone Consulting principal consultant Ali Hammoud says town planners often get the least recognition when it comes to a development, but they’re actually involved in one of the most important parts – the initial stages, which can either make or break a successful development.
So, what exactly do they do?
“The question is more, what isn’t it to be a town planner?” Hammoud jokes.
“In terms of property, it’s the person that people go to for almost anything, regardless of whether it’s for a town planner or not.
If anyone has any questions or they just don’t know, they seem to ask a town planner.
“The concept is based on the approach ‘what can be done with the property and how can the property best be used?”
Planning the Future
In many ways, a town planner is a designer and shaper of the future.
The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) says town planners are responsible for shaping cities, towns and regions, as well as suburbs and development sites, through the management of development, infrastructure and services.
“As well as assessing development proposals and devising policies to guide future development, planners work in areas as diverse as housing, energy, health, education, communications, leisure, tourism and transport,” PIA says.
Planners are often at the centre of complex debates about urban development, regional and rural planning, development assessment and land use.
But before your start being a mover and shaker of the future, you need a qualification.
Hammoud says you need a degree, as a minimum, to become a town planner.
“There aren’t many universities left in Sydney or New South Wales that offer town planning.
It comes and goes as the industry changes,” Hammoud says.
PIA’s chief executive officer Kirsty Kelly says the undergraduate degree is four years, but you can also take a two-year masters degree.
If you’re keen to go one step further, a town planner can also apply to become a certified practising planner, or CPP.
This accreditation is awarded to planning professionals who already have several years experience.
“The benefit of the CPP is that it’s our highest level of membership,” Kelly says.
It’s someone who has qualifications and experience, but also who has passed assessments in a number of key areas.”
Once you’ve got your qualifications, however, you can’t just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.
The learning is endless and lifelong.
Town planners need to keep up with changes in legislation, whether that’s new zoning changes, infrastructure changes or environmental changes.
A town planner constantly relies on contacts, as well as property databases and Google maps.
They need to keep abreast of the government or council land title system.
Shaping the city’s future is a lot of responsibility, so you’d expect to be handsomely rewarded.
But a town planner’s salary is usually around the $60,000 range.
Someone stating out would get about $40,000, while a more senior town planner might earn $90,000.
So, it’s not just about money.
It’s about helping people and knowing your stuff.
The job also requires a lot of social interaction.
After all, you’re working with all types of people, including local, state and federal governments, private development firms, universities and research bodies.
You’ll also frequently work with engineers, architects, building surveyors, economists, developers, politicians, scientists and environmental scientists.
“Graduate planners usually end up in one of two areas, either in local government or working on development applications,” Kelly says.
“They might work in policy or research roles, or policy and strategic planning.”
In general, the better the property market is going, the more jobs there are, because when the market is booming, developers have more equity.
This means there’s more chance of making a profit.
How They Help Investors
Town planners can assist investors because a big part of their job is to use new legislation to their advantage.
There are town planners who work for councils and also town planners who ledge development approvals (DA) and try to help mum and dad investors get a proposed development across the line.
They might look at zoning changes and argue that a development on ‘x’ site needs ‘y’ amount of townhouses.
“It’s also about looking at the creative side of things and how you can use those controls and the legislation to get more out of the property than what might’ve been envisaged,” Hammoud explains.
“You’re looking at things more innovatively. Interpretation’s a big thing.
If you can put a spin on something or convince someone it works or makes sense, you almost have an upper hand, in terms of what anyone will read.”
This makes life as a town planner extremely satisfying and rewarding.
In many ways, you’re not just changing a suburb’s look and feel, you’re also helping investors make profitable deals.
“There’s a satisfaction in getting an outcome for someone and achieving the result the client wanted,” Hammoud says.
“The typical one is getting a building slightly bigger than what council will allow. Everyone always wants to push boundaries.”
Of course, town planning is “pretty black and white” and so it’s impossible to put a positive spin on something that won’t pass through council.
“A lot of it is measured and clear cut,” Hammoud says.
“At the end of the day there’s your own integrity and there are cases where the impacts are unavoidable.
It’s a question of where you can draw the line.”
Of course, you always know about zoning changes and new town plans, meaning you can jump on them and potentially make a profit if you get in early enough.
That’s often where town planners are needed.
They simply know more than the average person about what can be done with sites.
“We get that people have no idea what they can do with their property,” Hammoud says.
“They say, ‘it looks big. I think I can do something.
Can you help me?’
Others have exact type of development in mind, they just need someone to help them through the process.”
That process will take them right from the beginning to the very end.
“They might have seen a property on the weekend and they’ll call on the Monday.
They’ll say, ‘what are your thoughts?’ Those clients can be harder, because they don’t know that much about the property.
They’ll rely on us to make informed decisions, which brings in risk.
That’s where we start being cautious.”
Those risky questions usually involve an investor wanting specific information about how they can achieve a financial gain.
“That’s where we draw the line.
The risk is, if we give that information out and it falls through, we have a liability,” Hammoud says.
‘In our industry, there’s insurance protection in place but we’re dealing with a large amount of money.”
And while some town planners work closely with the development application process, others focus on legislation.
Blockbrief chief executive officer and founder Matthew Player’s job is all about data, and how that can be turned into dollars.
He notifies his subscribers about zoning changes as well as new developments.
“My job is literally keeping up to date with legislation changes, data changes and major developments across the country,” Player says.
“I make sure I’m on top of what is the major impact, what’s the process and if it’s legislation related, how is that going to affect planning practice and real estate in general.”
A lot of the time, it comes down to working with bureaucracy and time restrictions.
But the goal is always to help investors and developers.
“For a real estate developer, the key thing for them is that it helps them keep on top of what zoning changes are happening.
This obviously helps developers identify the best properties, or sites, and know exactly which areas fall into certain zones that may or may not benefit them.
“It helps them keep on track of what’s happening in their market,” he says.
“They know if there’s a major development going on in the area and that could have spillover effects that might help increase the value of their property.”
Town planners can also help the average homeowner, even if they have no plans to develop the land.
“They might say ‘okay we’re looking at buying this property, is there anything in the area about to happen?”
Kelly adds that most town planners are neither pro- nor anti-development.
They’re simply trying to achieve the best outcome for the community.
“It’s not for or against.
They’re looking at how to get the best outcome, to get a development that works really well for the future,” she says.
Time is Money
It’s usually no problem to do a preliminary check on the area but time is money when you’re a town planner.
The amount of effort and research required for a preliminary enquiry usually depends on the council or region, according to Brett Richards of Pro Town Planners.
“Right now, if you ring up asking about a Logan development (west of Brisbane) I have to work out if you’re talking about the Logan Shire, the old part of Beaudesert or the Gold Coast,” he says.
“They amalgamated a lot of councils but the town planning legislation isn’t something they can approve.
They pass it, then it gets sent to the state government for approval.”
It’s also now much harder to get a development through in Brisbane, Richards says.
The new town plan has many restrictions, especially when it comes to cutting down trees.
In the past, Richards would do a preliminary enquiry for free, but since the new plan has come in, he charges just over $100.
The next stage is to get a more detailed report.
This is anywhere from $250 to $500, Hammoud explains (see QR scanner for an example of a report).
A more detailed report, looking at calculations, yields and concepts, would start hitting around $1000.
“We investigate property details, what property controls there are and the type of development you can do,” Hammoud says.
“We look at if the type of development the client has in mind is compatible, what the next steps are and what they need to do.
If we find something else with a better option, then that’s something we might suggest and recommend.
We’ve got that ability to give them the information. We essentially project-manage the approval process.”
A town planner will normally prepare a statement of environmental impact and it’s usually prepared with a development application.
“It gives council the assessment of the development and where there are impacts, discussing what measures there are to mitigate the impact.” Hammoud adds.
In many cases, clients ring Hammoud and say ‘I want to develop a duplex – Just solve it for me.’
He’ll ring architects, landscapers and people he’s worked with in the past.
“We know who we need and what we need,” he says.
“We ask for quotes and present the client with a package, saying ‘this is what you need.’ We can manage the whole process.”
That usually costs around $5000 and includes full management of the D.A.
But if you’re thinking of hiring a town planner, it’s always best to call them as soon as you find a potential site.
“The ability to change the concept of a development or a design is much harder and more expensive in the later stages,” Player says.
“In the early stages, it’s very inexpensive to change a line on a page.
But if you lose a storey at the later stage, all of a sudden finance (and losing the loan) comes into question.”
When Planning is the Pits
One of the biggest cons when it comes to town planning is that many people expect something for nothing.
They’ll call a town planner and ask them to check the zoning or potential number of townhouses that might be allowed on a site, with no plan to pay the town planner or use their services at a later date.
“Being in the position I’m in, I’m also running a business and so it’s about spending my time wisely and not wasting time on people fishing around,” Hammoud says.
“You get a lot of people asking questions and wanting answers and not engaging anyone to help them.
It’s about filtering those kinds of people.”
Red tape and regulation can also put a delay on developments, which is obviously frustrating for both town planner and investor.
“The government’s position is constantly changing, so you constantly have to evolve,” he says.
“And out of all the professions in property development, town planning seems to get the least amount of credit.
It would be the first to go if anyone was to get rid of something.”
Richards adds it’s also tough at times to know the exact legislation for each area and many applications are difficult.
“If they ask, ‘can we do this?’ 90 per cent of the time we say ‘no’”.
Council meetings can also drag on.
“They can go on for a very long time.
You can be sitting there until 11pm when you thought it would be finished at 7pm,” Player says.
The good news is if you hire a town planner, they’re the ones sitting in meetings and doing the hard yards for you.
More importantly, their work could save you tens or even thousands of dollars.
Better yet, rather than save the money, some clever town planning knowledge and designs could also net you a healthy profit for your next development.
ALI HAMOUD’S TOP 10 TIPS FOR TOWN PLANNERS
- Be confident – In both the decisions you make and to give direction when needed.
- Be proactive – Know what’s coming instead of waiting for it to come.
- Think outside the square and be creative – This is where you’ll achieve some of the best outcomes.
- Know how to prioritise and manage your time and work.
- Ask questions – Don’t be afraid to ask about things you don’t know and try work/projects you haven’t done before and don’t know about.
- Get out there – Build your network through planned evens and functions. There are lots of free ones on offer.
- Remember that image is everything – Word of mouth is the best referral.
- Make people happy – Keep your clients, professional contacts and colleagues happy and you’ll succeed.
- Fall in love with technology – It can be one of the best tools to make you more productive and efficient.
- Keep a work/life balance – I’m the worst culprit for not following this, but it’s essential.
Editors note: We are republishing this article to help out our newer readers. This article was written by Lauren Day and originally published in Australian Property Investor Magazine and has been republished with their permission
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