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Small real estate firms in Northern New York joining with big brands is latest industry trend

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When Peebles Realty of Adams became Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices CNY Realty on April 8, signs put up six years ago when the firm was opened by Karen A. Peebles were replaced.

Merging with larger real estate companies has become a recent trend among smaller north country firms that are developing strategies for long-term growth. The recent buyout of Peebles Realty by CNY Realty, Syracuse, came after a pair of other firms in Jefferson County announced similar deals in the past year. Elliott Realty Inc., with offices in Watertown and Henderson, changed names after it was bought out in February by RealtyUSA, Amherst, which has about 60 offices statewide; last summer, Lori Gervera Team of Watertown formed a partnership with Keller Williams Realty International, Texas, which has about 700 locations worldwide.

Mrs. Peebles, former broker/owner who now serves as broker/branch manager, said the merger with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices CNY Realty was long in the making. She had discussed a potential merger with broker/owner Daniel J. Hartnett.

The small Adams firm, which has seven employees, will have the potential to rapidly expand under the Berkshire Hathaway company, Mrs. Peebles said.

“Dan and I have been friends for over 10 years, and he was bugging me over the past couple of years to join forces,” she said, adding that they’ve both served as leaders of the New York State Association of Realtors. “I was looking for a way to grow the company, and as an individual I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and spend a lot of money on the business. I found out this company puts clients and customers first, and that’s the way I do business.”

Formerly owned by Prudential Real Estate, the Berkshire Hathaway company was launched in 2009 as Prudential CNY Realty. After increasing its staff to about 150 employees, the company was bought out by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in 2012 as part of a larger company move to take over networks owned by Prudential and Real Living Real Estate. The company is owned by Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.

Plans to open a second location in Watertown in the next year have been studied at the firm, which serves clients across Jefferson, Lewis and Oswego counties, Mrs. Peebles said. She added that stronger training programs offered by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices will allow the company to offer more professional development opportunities for staff.

“We’re now able to do more webinars and offer more training onsite,” Mrs. Peebles said. “They offer training for new and existing agents, and I think it’s going to help my existing agents grow.”

Mr. Hartnett, who bought the company in January 2010, said he believes the Adams branch office has plenty of room to grow in the north country. He said opening a second location soon in Watertown likely could be part of that plan. The acquisition of the Adams firm gave the company its sixth branch location.

“Watertown and the Fort Drum area is very appealing, and I think that the waterfront area is a little underserviced as well,” Mr. Hartnett said. “I think there’s opportunity there, and I’m looking forward to cultivating it. We will expand as we see that future growth come in.”

Lori Gervera Team’s partnership last summer with Keller Williams Realty International enabled the firm to tap into technology, marketing options and specialized services offered by the company. The 605 Washington St. firm has a staff of four team members, with plans to hire three more this spring, said Lori J. Gervera, associate broker of Keller Williams Northern New York and Lori Gervera Team.

Ms. Gervera said the partnership enabled Keller Williams Northern New York to establish its own office in Watertown, but it also allowed her firm’s staff at the Lori Gervera Team to maintain a separate identity under the same roof. The flexible company structure allows real estate agents at the firm to either be employed by Ms. Gervera’s firm or work directly for Keller Williams, she said.

“I chose to join forces with Keller Williams so I could offer new agents opportunities they deserve,” Ms. Gervera said. “As an independent firm, it’s truly difficult to reinvent the wheel, and you can’t do all of the training and staffing that a franchise is able to. We’re now hoping to expand Keller Williams Northern New York here. We’ll be relocating as we outgrow our 605 Washington Street space, which we hope to accomplish over the next year.”

Fourteen former Elliott Realty brokers and agents, who now work under the RealtyUSA corporate name, continue to serve the same markets. William J. Elliott, former owner/broker of Elliott Realty for 18 years, said in a prepared statement that the firm will continue to grow under the RealtyUSA name.

“We have been in discussions for several years and I am impressed with RealtyUSA’s growth and direction in the marketplace,” he said.

Lance M. Evans, executive officer of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors, said larger firms with a national presence have been attracted to buying small firms in the region because of the housing market’s strength here. The median home sale price in Jefferson County has increased from about $76,000 in 2004 to $150,500 in 2013.

Local realtors “are looking for someone who is going to help them expand their business, and they all individually made the decision that the time to sell is right now,” Mr. Evans said. “And the people that have bought into these businesses have decided that the time is right, that it’s not just going to be a flash in the pan where there are only a few years of sales. You have the single largest employer in upstate New York — Fort Drum — sitting not far from Watertown, and you have a lot of seasonal buyers coming into the market.”

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