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Spencer Burton - REFM Excel for Real Estate certification.

Spencer Burton – REFM Excel for Real Estate certification

About the Author: Born and raised in the Northwest United States, Spencer Burton has over 14 years of real estate investment and development experience. In his current position, Spencer assesses new investments for a $40bn real estate fund. In addition, he is the founder of Spencer resides in Dallas, TX.

In the unlikely event you’ve visited my LinkedIn page lately or happened upon Bruce Kirsch’s list of REFM Certification Holders, you might have noticed that over the last year I’ve completed my REFM Excel for Real Estate certification.

In coming across this obscure fact you might have further wondered – uh, why? I mean, I already have a full-time job at a well-respected institutional real estate investor doing exactly what I always wanted to be doing – I’m definitely not leaving anytime soon and thus have no need to sharpen up my resume. Plus, my real estate financial modeling cred is not in question, at least I sure hope not! So why bother? Well, allow me to explain my reasoning and perhaps convince you as well of the merits of getting REFM Excel for Real Estate certified.

Disclaimer: Adventures in CRE has an affiliate agreement with REFM, whereby referrals from our site to REFM may result in a commission paid by REFM to Adventures in CRE. With that said, we only refer our readers to people and programs we ourselves use and believe in.


Before getting into the specifics of why I took the certification, let me provide a quick overview of the program for those who are unfamiliar. The REFM Excel for Real Estate Certification Program was started in 2011 as a means to demonstrate to employers (and the world!) proficiency modeling commercial real estate investments in Excel. At the time of its development, the certification was – and still is – the only program of its kind.

The Certification Program consists of three levels – Level One tests professionals on finance basics such as time value of money concepts (PV, FV, RATE, NPV, IRR, etc) and the use of functions in Excel essential to real estate modeling such as logical statements (IF, AND, OR) and dates and functions (EOMONTH, EDATE).

Level Two covers more complex concepts in real estate financial modeling including advanced time value of money, formula-based interest-only/ amortizing payment switch, and residual land value calculations.

Level Three tests the professionals ability to model complex partnership structures, including waterfall distribution models with a preferred return and multiple promote IRR hurdles. This level also gets into modeling double-promotes, look-backs, and claw-backs.

Each exam must be completed in 60 minutes and is free to take. You can take the exams in any order you please and all three can be completed in a few days if you possess the competency upfront. The tests are available online and can be taken at anytime. You must score a 70% or above to pass, while an 85%+ passes with distinction.

As you pass each test, your name is added to the list of REFM Certification Holders. There are no annual fees to maintain certification and from that day forth you are entitled to sell yourself as REFM Excel for Real Estate certified.


So back to my initial question – why did I take the time to get certified? It ultimately comes down to two reasons: never stop learning and do what you can to differentiate yourself.


“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.” – Michel Legrand

You’ve heard it a thousands times but it deserves repeating. Never stop learning. It’s a hard thing for those of us who spent 6-8 years in the classroom only to enter the real-world and be told, your learning has only just begun! But continuous learning in life is essential – essential to success in business as well as essential to success in life in general.

The REFM Certification was a chance for me to step back, concede that I don’t know it all, and learn a skill I was already proficient at in a different way. It was an opportunity to review concepts I’d learned but, because I’d not used them much, had become lost. The exercise was a chance to think about real estate financial modeling in a slightly different way that has made me a better professional because of it.

Becoming Excel for real estate certified, even when it was seemingly unnecessary, gave me a chance to never stop learning.


If you haven’t noticed, breaking into the coveted acquisitions, development, and asset management jobs at top CRE companies and private equity firms is tough. These positions often get thousands of applicants, many of whom graduated from better schools and have worked at more impressive companies than you have. It’s tough to stand out and even tougher to compete.

It’s just as tough once you land the job. As you move up the career ladder, you’re competing for fewer spots and against the best in the industry. If your resume is stale and your skillset frozen in time, you’ll be stuck.

The certification is one way to stand out. To be different than the next guy or gal. To demonstrate a commitment and discipline that others have not. Sure it doesn’t take years of effort to complete – as with the CFA – but that makes the certification all the more important. If you’re not willing to give up a weekend or two to get certified, why should you get hired or promoted over the next guy who did?

In business, the saying “Innovate or Die” is all the more important in this day and age. In the workforce, differentiate or starve is equally as applicable.


Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see a downside to getting certified. If you’re an undergraduate seeking to land that first job, it shows proficiency in the most important tool you will use as a future analyst – financial analysis in Excel. If you’re an analyst or associate working your way up through the first five to ten years of your career, it will show a commitment to your craft and differentiate you among your peers. And if you’re an old real estate guy – it’s never to late to learn something new, or relearn that which is lost.

So a challenge. Next time you have an open weekend, take the time get REFM Excel for Real Estate Certified. I promise you will learn something new and help your personal brand stand out from the crowd.

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