Commercial Real Estate Basics

April 11, 2024

An introduction to commercial real estate, covering types of properties, basic terms, and the differences between commercial and residential real estate.

Commercial real estate (CRE) refers to properties used exclusively for business purposes, such as office buildings, retail spaces, industrial facilities, and multifamily apartment complexes. These properties are typically leased to tenants who use the space to conduct their business operations. Commercial real estate plays a vital role in the economy, providing the necessary infrastructure for businesses to thrive and grow.

Types of Commercial Properties

There are several types of commercial properties, each with its own unique characteristics and subtypes. Understanding the differences between these properties is essential for investors, tenants, and real estate professionals.

Office Buildings

Office buildings are designed to accommodate various businesses, from small startups to large corporations. These properties are typically classified into three categories based on their age, location, and amenities:

  • Class A: These are the newest and highest-quality office buildings, featuring state-of-the-art amenities and prime locations.
  • Class B: These properties are well-maintained but may be older or located in less desirable areas compared to Class A buildings.
  • Class C: These are the oldest and least desirable office buildings, often requiring significant renovations or improvements.
Urban Office Buildings

Urban office buildings are high-rise structures located in central business districts (CBDs) of major cities. These properties are highly sought-after due to their proximity to transportation hubs, restaurants, and other amenities.

Suburban Office Buildings

Suburban office buildings are low-rise properties located in suburban areas, often in office parks or standalone buildings. These properties offer more space and parking options compared to urban office buildings but may be further from city centers.

Retail Properties

Retail properties are designed for businesses that sell goods or services directly to consumers. There are several subtypes of retail properties:

Shopping Centers

Shopping centers are multi-tenant properties that house various retail businesses. They can be further classified into:

  • Strip Malls: These are small-scale shopping centers with a row of stores connected by a common walkway.
  • Neighborhood Centers: These shopping centers cater to the needs of a specific residential area, often anchored by a grocery store or drugstore.
  • Regional Malls: These are large-scale shopping centers with multiple anchor tenants, such as department stores, and a wide variety of smaller retailers.
Stand-Alone Retail

Stand-alone retail properties are single-tenant buildings, such as banks, restaurants, or convenience stores. These properties are often located in high-traffic areas and may have drive-thru facilities.

Industrial Properties

Industrial properties are designed for manufacturing, storage, and distribution of goods. There are two main subtypes of industrial properties:


Warehouses are large buildings used for storing and distributing goods. They often feature high ceilings, loading docks, and ample parking for trucks.

Flex Spaces

Flex spaces are a combination of office and industrial space, allowing tenants to customize the property to their specific needs. These properties are popular among businesses that require both office and manufacturing or storage space.

Multifamily Properties

Multifamily properties are residential buildings with multiple rental units, such as apartment buildings and complexes. While these properties are considered residential, they are often classified as commercial real estate due to their income-generating potential.

Essential Commercial Real Estate Terminology

To navigate the world of commercial real estate effectively, it's crucial to understand the following key terms:

  • Cap Rate: The capitalization rate is a measure of investment return, calculated by dividing a property's net operating income by its purchase price.
  • NOI: Net Operating Income is a property's annual income after deducting operating expenses, such as property taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs.
  • Lease Types: There are three main types of commercial leases: full-service (landlord covers all expenses), net (tenant pays a portion of expenses), and modified gross (tenant and landlord share expenses).
  • Tenant Improvements: These are customizations made to a rental space to suit a specific tenant's needs, such as installing partitions or upgrading electrical systems.
  • CRE: An abbreviation for "Commercial Real Estate."

Differences Between Commercial and Residential Real Estate

While both commercial and residential real estate involve properties, there are significant differences between the two:

Property Types

Residential real estate focuses on properties used for housing, such as single-family homes, townhouses, and condominiums. Commercial real estate, on the other hand, encompasses a wider range of properties used for business purposes.

Lease Agreements

Commercial lease agreements are typically longer and more complex than residential leases. They often include provisions for rent escalations, tenant improvements, and maintenance responsibilities.


Securing financing for commercial properties is often more challenging than for residential properties. Commercial loans typically have stricter underwriting requirements, higher interest rates, and larger down payments.

Property Management

Managing commercial properties requires specialized knowledge and expertise. Commercial property managers must handle tasks such as tenant relations, lease negotiations, and maintenance of complex building systems.

Investment Potential

Commercial properties often offer higher potential returns compared to residential properties, but they also carry more risk. Investors must carefully evaluate factors such as market conditions, tenant creditworthiness, and property location before making investment decisions.


Understanding the basics of commercial real estate is essential for anyone looking to invest in or work with these properties. By familiarizing yourself with the different types of commercial properties, essential terminology, and the unique aspects of this sector, you can make informed decisions and navigate the commercial real estate landscape more effectively.

Tim Clarke's Perspective

As a real estate agent with 17 years of experience, I've witnessed the importance of having a solid foundation in commercial real estate basics. Whether you're a novice investor or a seasoned professional, understanding the nuances of this sector is crucial for success.

When considering a commercial real estate investment, I recommend working with a team of experienced professionals, including a knowledgeable real estate agent, attorney, and lender who specialize in commercial properties. These experts can provide valuable guidance and support throughout the investment process, from identifying suitable properties to negotiating lease agreements and securing financing.

It's also essential to conduct thorough due diligence before making any investment decisions. This includes researching the property's location, assessing its condition, and analyzing local market conditions. By taking the time to educate yourself and surrounding yourself with a reliable team of professionals, you can increase your chances of a successful and rewarding experience in the world of commercial real estate.

Remember, while commercial real estate can offer significant opportunities for growth and profitability, it also comes with its own set of challenges and risks. By understanding the basics and seeking the guidance of experienced professionals, you can navigate this exciting and dynamic sector with confidence and success.

Tim M. Clarke

About the author

17 years as a Realtor in the Research Triangle, Tim seeks to transform the Raleigh-Durham real estate scene through a progressive, people-centered approach prioritizing trust & transparency.

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