Fishing Season -- and Other Real Estate Interview Questions
Updated: Sep 21
How do interviewers discern employee qualities?
Mike "Stone Face" Koll was a legendary figure at the University of California, Berkeley where he sat at the helm of its Alumni Association. A Cal baseball Hall-of-Famer and WWII veteran, Koll co-founded the 'Lair of the Golden Bear' camp in the Stanislaus National Forest, one of the most successful and imitated family camps in the nation. One of Koll's quieter achievements was his uncanny ability to hire seasonal staff for nearly 40 years. To be a staffer meant to bring some intellectual skill (like knowledge of Sierra flora) or athletic ability (to pitch a perfect softball) or possess traits that lent themselves to hospitality and customer service (like ebullience). Assembling a cohesive crew from disheveled undergraduates required discernment. To that end, Koll's interview lasted less than 2 minutes and consisted of 2 questions. As you might have already guessed, Koll's nickname derived from his lack of response to the undergraduates who sat in a chair that had hardly warmed before the interview ended.
Prospective employers assemble an array of questions, all designed to suss out underlying attributes and attitudes. My curiosity about the interview process led me to question high level real estate executives: a mortgage banker, head of a university land company, a broker from a national firm, the CEO of a consulting firm, and the founding member of a national law firm that specializes in transactions. How do they discern a worthwhile candidate for hire? What are their favorite interview questions? What attributes do they seek?
Beyond technical skills such as Excel, Argus, finance and mathematical classes, themes such as critical thinking, risk assessment, leadership, resilience, persistence, and communication emerged. Here are some of the questions along with the qualities that interviewers fish for. I've separated them along real estate sectors.
Tell me about a time you needed to redo a project in which you had already invested substantial time. How did you approach it?
(seeking: flexibility, problem solving, critical thinking)
Tell me about a (team) job or school experience in which you needed to change directions and how you worked with others to do that.
(seeking: critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills)
Tell me about a job you’ve had and what you learned or got out of that job. (note: doesn’t necessarily need to be deep but needs to be an “aha” moment)
(seeking: problem solving, critical thinking, persistence)
Tell me about a property and what strategy you employed to successfully market and lease it (students might use a case study).
(seeking: critical thinking, problem solving, industry experience)
How have you stretched yourself in some way in school (could be athletics, school organizations, etc.?
(seeking: ambition, initiative, curiosity)
What are your personal interests? Describe more about that interest/hobby.
(seeking: people skills, personally interesting, authenticity)
Note: this Managing Executive says, “If they say they love to travel and the coolest place they have been is 200 miles away, it’s not true. If they say Africa to see the great migration, then yes. If they have no personal interests outside school, that’s not a fit in our business. We need people who are personable and smart and can problem solve.”)
Tell me the most rewarding job you’ve had and why.
(seeking: initiative, problem solving, critical thinking)
What gets you up in the morning?
(seeking: motivation, interests, initiative)
Tell me about a real estate development you love and why.
(seeking: genuine interest, critical thinking, observant)
Tell me about a business challenge you have experienced and how you responded.
(seeking: problem solving, critical thinking, attitude)
Tell me about a time you needed to deliver bad news to a client or colleague.
(seeking: communication, problem solving, crisis management)
Tell me about a time that you weighed risks, assessed their importance and ultimately come to a positive conclusion.
(seeking: critical thinking, risk assessment, risk tolerance)
How do you cross the finish line when faced with a challenging project?
(seeking: persistence, organization, resilience)
How do you compartmentalize, organize and prioritize a project?
(seeking: organization, technical ability, persistence)
Tell me about a time when you needed to convince others to take a different path than the one you had originally charted.
(seeking: thoughtful communication, leadership, critical thinking)
Give me an example of a very difficult inter-personal situation (employee, client, or tenant) and how you dealt with it.
(seeking: problem solving, leadership, communication)
What is the most complex and challenging lease you have had to administer?
(seeking: technical skill, observant, critical thinking)
Which do you prefer, cash or accrual accounting?
(seeking: technical knowledge, thoughtfulness, experience)
Other General Questions
Do you consider yourself lucky?
(seeking: perspective on life and work)
What was your favorite high school class? Activity?
(seeking: genuine interests. The founder of a national law firm uses this as he finds it a disarming question for Ivy League graduates and an indicator of one's true interests, chosen at a point in life when one had an array of available, lower-stake choices.)
You may wonder how Mike Koll made his hiring decisions. One summer, I summoned the courage to ask him. Koll's response? "I know the moment someone walks into the room."
For those wishing to understand the real estate leasing business, consider reading Suite Deal.