If the latest move by the Oracle of Omaha is any indication, the housing market is back and ripe for profit.
Warren Buffett said Tuesday that his Minneapolis-based HomeServices of America has bought a stake in two real estate brokerage networks. As part of the deal, he intends to launch his own branded brokerage franchise.
HomeServices, part of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway business empire, has acquired a majority interest in the Prudential and Real Living brokerages in a joint venture with the Toronto private equity firm Brookfield Asset Management.
The new company creates a real estate mega-franchise that will be known as Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. Based in Irvine, Calif., the brand is expected to show up on storefronts and lawn signs in the third quarter of 2013. Terms were not disclosed.
HomeServices is the nation's second-largest real estate brokerage company and the parent of Edina Realty and 25 other brokerages.
The new franchise is "built upon the financial strength and leadership of Brookfield and HomeServices," said Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, in a statement. "I am confident that these partners will deliver value to the residential real estate industry, and I am pleased to have Berkshire Hathaway be part of the new brand."
Steve Murray, editor of Real Trends, a Colorado-based real estate consulting and communications company, said the move won't fundamentally change the way business is done or the way services are delivered. But in the fragmented real estate market, it creates "another big player with lots of capital that wants to grow its footprint."
"Much like Berkshire Hathaway has bought into certain industries in the past, which signaled their faith in that business and the future of the economy, this is Berkshire doubling down its wager in housing," he said.
HomeServices of America is an umbrella company for 26 realty firms in 21 states. It offers consumers a full range of services when buying property and also has a joint venture with Wells Fargo. The company's 16,000 agents had $32 billion in residential real estate sales in 2011.
Brookfield: $72B in sales
HomeServices became part of Buffett's conglomerate in 1998, after being purchased by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway.
Brookfield manages $150 billion in assets worldwide and is co-listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges. It also operates global real estate and relocation services. Its Prudential and Real Living franchises have more than 53,000 agents, and generated $72 billion in sales last year.
The Prudential and Real Living names will remain for now, though the franchises and agents are expected to get rolled into the new Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices banner as contracts expire.
Brokerages such as Edina Realty and others in the existing HomeServices network won't be forced into the network but can add a line to their branding that identifies them as a Berkshire Hathaway company.
Marshall Saunders, broker-owner of Re/Max Results in Minneapolis, said the move came as no surprise. HomeServices has been making moves to become a national real estate company for some time, buying up midsized brokerages around the country. It recently pulled out of national websites Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow.
"It's very anti-consumer and extremely anti-agent," said Saunders, who operates 24 offices with 700 agents in the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Rochester.
It harkens back to the 1970s, Saunders said, before the launch of the Multiple Listing Service where agents pooled information to help buyers and sellers find each other.
But Ron Peltier, the CEO of HomeServices who ran Edina Realty for two decades, said it can be an "Achilles' heel" to have just local brands vs. a national brand, and that sites such as Trulia and Zillow are aggregators that "are not in the real estate business whatsoever."
The new company will be "creating a global brand and creating a destination site that actually is a site that customers and clients recognize and value when looking for real estate anywhere in the country and anywhere in the world," he said.