Who’s in the market to buy real estate brokerages?

The acquisition of JP & Associates by Cairn Real Estate set the real estate industry abuzz. There’s more to come as the real estate mergers and acquisitions market is strong.

We’ve talked about the interest in real estate companies by outside investors. No one knows that market better than Steve Murray, founder of RTC Consulting and a senior advisor for RealTrends. We spoke with Murray about the strength of the real estate merger and acquisition market and who’s buying. “Well, the new entry of Cairn Real Estate acquiring one of the top 20 brokerages in the country — JP & Associates — sent shivers all through the industry,” says Murray. He notes that the types of entities buying brokerage companies is more varied than ever before.

Most brokers can remember the buying spree of Realogy until a couple of years ago when they made a strategic decision to step away from mergers and acquisitions except for roll-ins and smaller transactions. Then, you had Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices (BHHS) and a few large independents making up the majority of buyers. “Today, we still have BHHS and Realogy (in very selective areas), but you have Peerage Capital, Compass, an energized Hanna Family (Howard Hanna Real Estate), Seattle-based Windermere, United Real Estate and HomeSmart in the market for brokerage companies,” he says. And, of course, newcomer, Cairn Real Estate out of Salt Lake City is in the mix now, too.

Different methodologies

“There are more buyers with more capital looking to invest in residential real estate-related services than at any time in my 35 years as a consultant,” says Murray. He notes that almost every buyer looks at a multiple of EBITDA to determine value, but some look at the trailing 12 months. “Some look at an average of two to three years to smooth out the extraordinary results most brokers had in 2020,” says Murray.

There are lots of buyers, and just as many considering selling, including teams. But, all companies have different objectives and different firms they are looking to acquire. You can get an idea of what they want by looking at the firms they’ve recently acquired. Companies like Hanna, Compass, Peerage and Windermere are “looking at more traditional brokerage companies with traditional ways of operating business,” he says. Cairn, HomeSmart and United Real Estate are focused on larger brokers who have low cost structures for agents. “We expect eXp Real Estate is also interested in that segment,” says Murray.

Organic growth

The RealTrends Game Changers, (this link is to last year’s winners) will be launching June 15. Brokers are chosen based on percentage growth in transaction sides between 2014-2020 based on the RealTrends 500 data. The 13 firms chosen had tremendous growth over those five years. I’ve been interviewing them to find out how they did it. You might expect a lot of that growth was through mergers and acquisitions, but you would be wrong. In fact, most of the brokers I spoke to said they had only one or two small acquisitions of 10-person offices and that 90% of their growth was organic. There are multiple ways to grow, and no where is that more evident than in the differing strategies of Compass (M&A-based growth) and eXp Real Estate (organic-based growth.) Look for those interviews at the end of June. There are some terrific insights.

As for the M&A market, Murray says, “The market is strong. It’s varied with lots of investors and buyers with different structures and different ways to determine value. It’s going to continue for a while.”