Business & Entrepreneurship

Get Real

This course teaches that real estate involves far more than selling houses.


Real estate is about much more than selling homes, notes Sharon McCabe, who teaches Real Estate Process. She tries to give her students a grasp of the many ways that land ownership can affect them. Istock photo.

No matter what the economic indicators may say, Sharon McCabe ’89, MS’92 is high on real estate. She believes not only in its financial importance, but also in its educational value.

“Everyone is going to be involved with real estate one way or another,” says McCabe, a faculty associate at the Wisconsin School of Business. “Even if [people] don’t work in real estate, they’ll buy a house or rent or deal with property in a business. Real estate affects everyone.”

To help students come to grips with the vast and varied world of land ownership, McCabe teaches Real Estate Process (RE 306), a course hosted in the Department of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics, but cross-listed in the departments of Urban and Regional Planning, Economics, and Agricultural and Applied Economics. Each semester, more than 250 undergrads enroll in this general survey, which consists of two lectures and one discussion session every week.

“This is about more than just selling houses,” she says. “It’s required for all students who are going to do real estate for their major, but in the class I want to teach all the basics — the dynamics of real estate, property rights, finance and mortgage issues, market research, appraisal, brokerage, and development. I want to give students a sense of what real estate is and how it affects them.”

The course was originally created by the legendary UW professor James A. Graaskamp, and McCabe, a former commercial assessor for the city of Madison, says she still takes inspiration from his principles. “One of the things Graaskamp used to stress is that real estate is multidisciplinary,” she says. “You’ve got to respect all the facets if you want to understand an area’s economy.”

In a September lecture on government controls, for example, McCabe covered issues of zoning and building codes, using Madison regulations as an example. She projected the city’s zoning maps onto a screen and explained which neighborhoods could have commercial or industrial property, which had limits on the height of buildings, and how the width of streets is regulated.

“These rules are important,” she explained, “because the value of real estate is affected by externalities. What you do with your property affects the value of neighboring property. What your neighbors do affects you.”

To illustrate her topic, she points to real-world examples, such as the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center on University Avenue, which recently received the city’s permission to rebuild as an eight-story structure offering student apartments. To do so, St. Francis had to overcome the objections of its neighbor, Luther Memorial Church, and win support from the city’s Plan Commission, which initially opposed the proposal. In September, the commission voted 15 to 4 in favor of the St. Francis plan.

“One of the most challenging things for developers is getting [permission] to do what they want,” McCabe says.

While McCabe wants her students to learn the terminology of land issues, she has an additional motive — to get them excited about real estate as a career. “I’m trying to turn them into real estate geeks,” she says.

Published in the Winter 2011 issue


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