Cendant has big piece of real estate market

Company is owner of well-known `brands'

April 04, 2004|By Mary Umberger | Mary Umberger,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Cendant Corp. is the biggest company you've probably never heard of. Even its executives acknowledge that.

But the average consumer will recognize the names of some of its real estate businesses - Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Century 21 and ERA - that blanket the United States and the globe.

The three "brands" were collectively involved in one-quarter of the nation's agent-assisted home sales last year, a record year when 6.1 million existing homes changed hands, according to the corporation, based in New York City.

If you've refinanced, your loan might have been handled by Cendant Mortgage, even if you didn't realize it. That's because in addition to being a traditional, consumer-based mortgage company (the nation's 10th largest), Cendant handles the loan operations of Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab and American Express.

Whether by acquisition, franchise affiliation or licensing agreements, "brand name" national realty companies are involved in about half of all home sales that use real estate agents, according to Steve Murray, an industry consultant in Littleton, Colo. It's a change that some critics view as the "Wal-Martization" of a traditionally local business.

But in a departure from the saga of big-box retailers that squeeze out their little-guy competitors and upend the local business landscape, real estate consumers may not be affected by such consolidation.

For one thing, consumers don't seem to be particularly "brand-driven" when it comes time to buy or sell a house.

"How do consumers choose a real estate company? They don't; they choose an agent," Murray says.

This battle of the brands is serious. Cendant competes with Re/Max, Realty Executives, Prudential, GMAC and another handful of companies. But it is the industry's undeniable leader, having acquired about 50 real estate businesses a year since the late 1990s, many of them regional giants, including Baltimore's O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in 2002.

Cendant executives are focusing on one-stop shopping (mortgage, title, inspection, home repair and numerous other services) that they believe time-pressed consumers want.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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