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Understanding Soft and Hard Costs in Commercial Real Estate

When considering a commercial real estate project, the costs involved are typically categorized as either “soft” or “hard.” These terms, though often used interchangeably, represent very different types of expenses.

Below, we break down what each term means and the key distinctions between them.

Soft Costs: The Intangibles

Soft costs are not directly tied to the physical construction of a building or property. Such costs are often considered the indirect costs that go into preparing for a construction project or the costs of doing business, such as:

1. Architectural and Design Fees: Payments to architects, engineers or designers for developing plans.

2. Legal Fees: Costs for obtaining permits, contracts, and other legal documentation.

3. Insurance: Costs associated with insuring a project against potential risks.

4. Financing Costs: Interest payments or other fees tied to securing funds for the project.

5. Administrative Costs: Overheads, staff salaries, office expenses, etc., not directly linked to on-site construction.

6. Planning and Permitting: Government fees and third party expenses associated with obtaining necessary permissions or approvals.

7. Land Appraisal and Environmental Studies: Costs of valuation and environmental specialists to identify a site’s value and environmental risks based on a range of factors and packaged analysis.

8. Marketing and Sales Expenses: Costs to market the property and attract potential tenants or buyers.

Hard Costs: The Tangibles

Hard costs are the direct expenses related to the physical construction of a project. These are often the bricks and mortar of a building, including:

1. Labor: Costs of hiring workers, craftsmen, and on-site laborers.

2. Materials: Expenses for concrete, steel, wood, and any other material necessary for building.

3. Equipment: Rentals or purchases of machinery and tools used in construction.

4. Land Acquisition: The purchase price of the property being developed.

5. Utilities: Installation costs for water, sewer, electricity, and other essential utilities.

6. Landscaping: Costs for plants, trees, and other elements to beautify the exterior.

7. Site Work: Preparing the land for construction, including grading, excavation, and foundational work.

The Key Differences

1. Nature of Cost: Soft costs are intangible and associated with the business side of real estate, while hard costs are tangible and directly related to construction.

2. Flexibility: Hard costs, being tied to physical items or labor, tend to be more fixed. Soft costs can vary more depending on factors like design changes, financing terms, or administrative adjustments.

3. Timing: Soft costs often precede the actual construction process, while hard costs are incurred during the construction phase.


Understanding the distinction between soft and hard costs is essential for budgeting, planning, and managing commercial real estate projects. By recognizing where money will be spent and why, stakeholders can make more informed decisions and ensure the successful completion of their projects.


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