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Biz Talk: Buffalo firm goes from real estate to travel and back again

For decades in Western New York, the name "Stovroff" has been inextricably linked with the local real estate, at least as much if not more than Hunt or Gurney.

The old Stovroff & Herman was one of the area's leading real estate brokerage firms, with about 15 offices and several hundred agents at its peak. Originally formed in the 1950s after Morton and Joan E. Stovroff left Stuart Hunt's firm, the agency under their leadership had grown into a major force in the region by 1988.

That's when Morton Stovroff retired, and control of the firm was divided between his wife and three other executives. But Joan Stovroff quickly decided she didn't like sharing the firm, so she and her then-general manager, Jacqueline Taylor, left the firm.

Through a roundabout path that included a stint in the travel agency business, they eventually found their way back into real estate a decade later with a new firm: Stovroff & Taylor. Capitalizing on Joan's name and Taylor's management skills, the pair built up the agency gradually, and today has 38 agents and a single office on Wehrle Drive in Amherst, near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. But while the current firm is smaller than its predecessor, the duo remains as entrenched and well-known as before.

The Buffalo News spoke to Taylor about the firm and the housing market in Buffalo.

Stovroff & Taylor's Jacqueline Taylor talks about the Buffalo housing market on Wednesday Nov. 2, 2016 at the firm's Cheektowaga office. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Stovroff & Taylor's Jacqueline Taylor talks about the Buffalo housing market on Wednesday Nov. 2, 2016 at the firm's Cheektowaga office. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

How did Stovroff & Taylor get started?

In 1988, Joan and I left Stovroff & Herman. We had a noncompete agreement for five years, so we had to find something to do. Someone suggested a monogram store. Well, that wasn’t going to work. Someone suggested a café. Well, Joanie thinks a kitchen is a non-integral part of the house, so a café was not going to fly at all. Then our accountant said there was a need for a travel agency in Buffalo.

This was 1988, so that’s when the airlines actually paid us 10 percent of the ticket price, and that was a very viable business. Needless to say, that’s gone by the wayside. However, when we went into business, we didn’t know anything about the travel business. All we knew was how to sell. So Joanie and I, not knowing, went out every day, calling on corporations for travel. We actually had a passport book, and for every $25 you spent, we’d give you a stamp and when your book got full, you could take it to Rue Franklin or different restaurants.

So that’s how travel agencies really started to call on corporations for business, because she and I, to our ignorance, thought this was what you do.

[Stovroff & Herman) paid us to stay away an additional five years, so now it was 10 years. Then Merle Whitehead came along, bought the business from the other three, changed the name to RealtyUSA and opened the door for us to go back into business. So after the attorneys looked under every rock and stone, and there was nothing to prevent us from using our name, that’s how we went back into business.

Did you miss real estate when you weren’t in the business?

Yes, we did. We’re happy we did it. We’re here to stay. We’ve got great people, much much smaller than we were before. When we left, we had 14 to 16 offices and a lot of people. Now we have one office... [and] 38 people, versus a few hundred. So we’re just a totally different dynamic today than we were when we left in 1988.

Are you a niche player ?

We’re not house snobs. That’s not who we are. We’re more of a boutique. We’re very hands-on. You do not get lost in the shuffle. As a matter of fact, we probably have some clients who wish they could get more lost. Joanie’s here every day. I’m here every day. So we’re very involved with our people...It’s one-on-one here. My door’s never closed. We’re very available. And I’m not saying the other ones aren’t, but we don’t have any layers of management.

Two years ago, in October, we became a Weichert affiliate, which was a major decision for us... We changed all the signage. It was a very expensive adventure. I still think it’s a good idea, but you have to have the cooperation of all your people, and our staff felt they couldn’t buy into it. After a lot of finagling and legal things that took place, we finally were able to break the contract, because they’re pretty ironclad. So Strovroff & Taylor signs went up again.

How is the business today?

Merle said at the time that you're going to find a very different environment than when you left. Truer words were never spoken. It's a totally different business.

You didn’t have the Internet. You didn’t have Zillow or Trulia. Buyers and sellers relied on you, 100 percent. A buyer didn’t have access to the information they do now. To Joanie’s chagrin, the buyers truly know more than we know sometimes, or they know before we know, because they’re up at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.

Now with the franchises coming to town, before, if you had people with you, they stayed. Today, it’s who’s going to give me more to jump ship.

Is it better or worse?

I think it’s better. I think improvements in anything are usually better. Change is hard, but I think all of us are better. Buyers are better informed. Sellers are better informed, because it’s all right there. So I think there’s just so much more information out there today than 10 years ago, and it’s all at their fingertips.

The disadvantage is a lot of the information they get isn’t accurate. That’s a problem, and it’s one we all share. Zillow and Trulia are a nightmare.

How is the local market today compared with what you’ve seen in the past?

I’ve never seen the listing drought like it is now, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen multiple offers. We just had one last week, [where] there were seven offers, within one day, so we put off presenting them until three days later, to give people time if there was going to be more. It was amazing.

Then you also have to be concerned with appraisals. If a home is priced at $139,900, and it goes for $155,000, it’s got to appraise. There’s a big onus on appraisers today. I get calls all the time, "Can you help me out? I can’t justify the price."

We’re seeing a lot of cash offers, more than we’ve seen before, from locals. There’s a lot more money in Buffalo than you think.

Is the housing boom real or a bubble?

I think it’s real. As long as the interest rates stay where they are, Buffalo is very reasonable. People are moving into town. People are coming back to town. I see this all the time.

With the interest rates, the housing prices, the new construction, the city booming like it is, I think this is what we’re going to see for a while.

What advice would you give to buyers?

Be patient, because somewhere, something will come along. It will happen. You just have to be patient. And sometimes you have to be more realistic about what you will get. You just have to wait for it to come along.

And for sellers?

I think they’re in a dream-come-true. Put a sign in your yard, and one of us will come along and sell it. If a house is priced right, it’s going to sell right away. Buffalo is a good housing market, even with our taxes. It’s appealing.

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