Westchester’s winners

A look at the county's top residential firms and how they've dealt with the 'roller coaster' market north of the city

Mar.March 31, 2011 04:31 PM

Rosewood, a Georgian manor in Chappaqua, is the county’s second-priciest property on the market at $27.5 million. Stacy Levey of Houlihan Lawrence has the listing.

While the Manhattan real estate community is used to record-breaking residential deals, sales prices on some homes north of the city in Westchester are not too shabby either. Indeed, the county’s priciest listing, which is in Bedford Corners, a hamlet of the tony town of Bedford, is on the market for $30 million.

Not surprisingly, the firms brokering those deals are fighting for market share, in much the same way that they are in the city.

So which firms are dominating?

According to The Real Deal‘s first-ever ranking of Westchester firms, Houlihan Lawrence is currently winning by a landslide, with 857 agents and 1,602 listings valued at roughly $1.67 billion as of early last month (scroll down to see accompanying charts).

Coldwell Banker and BHG Rand Realty took the second and third spots, by number of agents, with 549 and 261 brokers, respectively.

Other firms on the top-10 list include Julia B Fee Sotheby’s International Realty — which actually had a larger cumulative value of listings than BHG, suggesting that it’s handling pricey properties. Prudential Douglas Elliman, Weichert Realtors, Century 21 Grand, Keller Williams Realty Group, Keller Williams NY and William Raveis also made the cut.

With the market rebounding in Westchester, there are more deals for the firms to go after.

According to the Westchester Putnam Association of Realtors, overall sales in the county were up 13 percent last year compared to 2009. The total dollar volume of homes sold, meanwhile, climbed 22 percent compared to the previous year.

Also, a good chunk of those deals happened in the luxury market, which sources say had been stalled until the middle of last year, when the momentum began to pick up.

In fact, the number of signed contracts on homes priced at $1 million or more climbed 25 percent during the first few months of this year compared to the end of 2010, according to a recent report from Houlihan Lawrence.

Houlihan, which has 18 offices throughout the county, has a strong presence in the luxury market. And, with its more than $1.6 billion in listings, it has triple the total listing value of the second-place firm, Coldwell, which had roughly $550 million in listings as of last month.

Houlihan’s agents, meanwhile, also dominate when it comes to the ranking of top Westchester agents (see chart). Of the top 10 brokers, seven are from Houlihan. The number-one agent, Houlihan’s Susan Glasgall, sold a jaw-dropping $77.78 million worth of property last year.

Muffin Dowdle, of Ginnell Real Estate, and Mark Seiden, of his self-named firm, came in second and third place, respectively. Dowdle raked in $69.14 million in closed sales in 2010, while Seiden sold $52.3 million in residential properties.

Houlihan COO Chris Meyers said the firm’s strategy for getting through the downturn and capitalizing on the market recovery has been to focus on its core geographic area in Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties, rather than trying to expand into new areas to gain market share.

“We’ve become large enough to have a regional brand,” Meyers said. “We’re not expanding geographically; we’re expanding in our footprint.”

But while the firm has closed a total of five offices in the last few years, it has actually added a net of 75 agents since 2008, Meyers said. He also said that while the firm’s 2010 sales volume for Westchester, Dutchess and Putnam counties of $3.5 billion is still below its 2007 total of $3.8 billion, it’s still an improvement over 2009, which saw just $2.7 billion in sales.

While Houlihan focused on its core selling area during the downturn, other firms have pursued different strategies to combat the market lethargy.

For example, William Raveis, the Connecticut-based agency that cracked the top-10 list after just 18 months in the market, has been drastically expanding its footprint through aggressive recruiting (see related story here).

And while Meyers said he’s feeling less pressure these days to align with a national brand, other firms have gone in the opposite direction.

Many brokers said that the larger umbrella companies more easily maneuvered through the recession, while it was the smaller firms that struggled most. Perhaps to counter that, some Westchester firms have affiliated with corporate brands.

For example, in April 2009, Rand Realty became a Better Homes and Gardens franchise under the Realogy brand. In doing that, they were able to acquire Century 21 Wolff, a local brokerage and a Realogy affiliate.

According to Matt Rand, a managing partner with the firm, being part of a national brand was a big help during the downturn.

“It seems that the resources you need today for marketing and technology, and the services that you have to have for clients and for agents to join a firm, are just so much more than they used to be,” Rand said. “The smaller companies, I think, have had more of a struggle with this market.”

Another firm, formerly known as Holmes & Kennedy, which ranked fifth on the list with 155 agents, recently took on the Prudential Douglas Elliman name, giving it access to Manhattan clientele looking to relocate.

Ted Holmes, COO, said the downturn has spurred many Manhattan homeowners — and renters — to buy in Westchester.

“The prices have come down to the point where buyers really perceive value for what they’re getting,” said Holmes.

That attitude, he said, has led to a more rapid recovery in Westchester towns closer to the city.

“Lower Westchester has started to recover faster than upper Westchester because of the proximity to the city,” said Holmes, who added that his roster of agents has remained relatively flat since peak market levels.

Holmes is not the only one who sees the Westchester recovery happening more in the luxury market in commuter towns in the southern part of the county.

“There’s no question that there’s a perception of value for people coming out of the city,” Meyers said, noting that, with price per square foot averaging roughly $340, some reverse sticker shock results.

According to Meyers, New York City homebuyers have flocked to towns like Bronxville, Scarsdale, Rye and Larchmont, largely because of their proximity to the five boroughs.

Perhaps due to the market downturn, more than half of the city transplants Houlihan is working with are former renters making a purchase while prices are low, he said.

But there are other brokers who see a uniform recovery and stabilization across the county and across all price points.

“I’m not finding that the other ends [of the market] aren’t moving as well,” said Maureen King, a manager with the number-six firm on The Real Deal‘s list, Weichert Realtors.

According to King, there has been an across-the-market adjustment.

“Nobody’s going back to the 10 and 12 percent [price] increases we saw in the past. This is what I would call a normalized real estate market,” King said.

Rand, meanwhile, said he does not see prices going up.

“We see prices being flat, and we’re seeing the higher end now coming back, where it had really been stalled last year,” he said.

But while this isn’t the price surge some would hope for, stabilization should be a welcome respite for weary Westchester brokers.

“Every year in the last five years we’ve had a major disruptive event,” Rand said.

“Even last year, we had the tax credits, which were good and they worked … [but then] zero activity right after. It created a roller coaster in the market.”

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