Independent Real Estate Offices Westchester New York
By ELSA BRENER: March 11, 2011  -  AGAINST a backdrop of mergers, acquisitions and reshuffling among corporate real estate brokerages, independent agencies have maintained a strong presence in Westchester, the poor housing market notwithstanding.

A decade ago, out of 437 agencies in the county, about 365 or 84% were independents, according to the Westchester Putnam Association of Realtors. Since then the number of brokerages has increased to 615, with mom-and-pops still representing about the same percentage. This is the case even though franchises like Sotheby’s and Better Homes & Gardens have sidled in on the nameplates of some longtime independents, said Richard Haggerty, the deputy executive officer of the association. Like Mark Seiden in Briarcliff Manor, many independents bridle at the thought of a franchise. “I can make my own rain, thank you,” said Mr. Seiden, who turned his back on a corporate real estate firm eight years ago and established the Mark Seiden Real Estate Team. “When I try a new market strategy, I don’t want to have to run the idea past anyone but myself.”

Throughout the nation as a whole, however, franchises have captured an increasing part of the market — about 50 percent, according to Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors in Washington. They have been especially successful in high-growth areas like the Sunbelt, where newcomers without access to a word-of-mouth referral are drawn to “the comfortable, familiar large company names” when buying a house, Mr. Molony said.

But in smaller, more personalized markets like Westchester, where independents can establish a reputation “and create their own brand identification on a local level,” Mr. Molony said, they tend to dominate.

Not that franchises have exactly struck out in Westchester. The 123-year-old C. S. McClellan in Pelham became McClellan Sotheby’s International Realty in 2008. The following year, Prudential Rand became Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty.

Most recently, in January, Legends Realty Group, a four-year-old independent in Sleepy Hollow, became a franchise of William Raveis Real Estate, Mortgage and Insurance, a 33-year-old firm with 75 offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

J. P. Endres-Fein, who owned the David Endres Realty Group in Scarsdale, was once adamant that she would never affiliate with a franchise operation. “I told them, ‘Don’t talk to me!’ ” she said. “ ‘It’s not even a consideration.’ ” But last fall, Ms. Endres-Fein, who had run the agency since 1992, ducked under the umbrella of Better Homes and Gardens Rand.

“They hired me away from myself,” she said. “It became more and more difficult to compete, and I came to the realization that it’s impossible for a small company without a franchise behind it to make it. You just can’t provide the same level of services.”

In another camp are broker-owners like Mr. Seiden; Philly Scoca of Village Realty in Tuckahoe; and Joe and Dan Houlihan of Houlihan & O’Malley in Bronxville. They are three of about 500 who continue to go it alone in small, unaffiliated brokerages.

For the past 20 years Ms. Scoca’s agency has occupied a small corner office in Tuckahoe’s downtown, and she said she had no plans to enlarge her business or affiliate it with another. She went out on her own after working for several years for a larger agency in Bronxville, because, she explained, “it suits my personality and my lifestyle to do it this way.”

For example, when Ms. Scoca, 55, adopted a baby boy, Johnny, from Guatemala three years ago, she rearranged her professional life around him. She removed two desks from the Tuckahoe office and set up a play area and a pullout couch for naps. “I couldn’t have done this working for someone else,” she said.

“We have an unorthodox, warm family atmosphere here, and it works for me and for my customers,” said Ms. Scoca, who says she has turned down offers from corporate agencies like Century 21 and Coldwell Banker. Her brokerage, which has eight independent agents, seeks listings in Tuckahoe village and east Yonkers. “I don’t need it to be big,” she said. “I’ve found my niche, and I have enough business.”

In Bronxville, the brothers Joe and Dan Houlihan bought their agency from its former owner in 1984 and eventually set up two divisions one for residential, which Joe oversees, and the other for commercial transactions, Dan’s purview. They now have a team of seven residential agents, two commercial brokers and five commercial appraisers. Called Houlihan & O’Malley (for the former owner), the agency also owns and manages several multi-tenant properties in Bronxville and provides financing for some commercial clients.

During their years in business, they have had only one offer from a franchise operation. “We’re an unusual business combination,” Dan Houlihan said, “and that diversity has served us well in the sense that we have been less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market, and therefore more able to operate unaffiliated.”

In Briarcliff Manor, Mr. Seiden has six buyer agents and a listing partner who work on commission. His wife, Amy, is his marketing manager. “I’m surrounded in the area by larger franchises like Coldwell Banker, Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty and Keller Williams,” he said, “but clearly, the statistics show, agencies like mine are not at all part of a dying breed.”