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S.L. REAL ESTATE MARKET PERKS UP

Here's a one-question quiz for you: The Salt Lake area real estate market is flatter than the salt flats or hotter than Moab on the Fourth of July.

There is no correct answer, really. It depends on whether you've been looking for a house or trying to sell one . . . and your success at either endeavor.We decided to pose the question to Coldwell Banker Premier Inc., the Utah operation of the national residential real estate chain that entered the local market only six years ago but has since carved out a very large niche for itself.

R. Scott Webber's answer was "none of the above." The local market is neither cold nor hot, he says, but is definitely improving over the dark ages of the '80s.

"We were actually in a depression for most of the '80s. The oversupply of homes was way out of balance with demand," said Webber, president of the Salt Lake office of Coldwell Banker Premier. His former firm, Webber Real Estate Services, merged with Coldwell Banker in 1985.

"Now, prices are barely starting to improve," he said. "We're still in recession, but our company has made some progress."

Webber is being modest. Premier's 1985 volume of $83.5 million soared to $305 million in 1990. In 1985 the company had 90 sales associates. Now there are 235 with 50 of them having joined the company's six Utah offices just in the past five months. His goal is to have 350 on board by the end of next year.

Sales projections for 1991 total 4,200 for some $365 million. Through May, the firm was 20 percent ahead of last year in sales and dollar volume. That growth, said Webber, came despite the first few months of any year being traditionally slower for real estate.

Those numbers were good enough to place Premier second only to the Coldwell Banker affiliate in Hawaii for dollar volume in the first five months of the year. Through the same period, five of Premier's six offices are ranked in the top 50 for closed dollar volume among 1,400 Coldwell affiliates nationwide.

Premier participated in the sale of 3,405 residential properties totaling $305 million last year, said to be more than any other Utah brokerage. National Relocation and Real Estate magazine ranked Premier 84th in total sales and 18th in sales per person in its 1990 MegaBroker issue.

In March 1989, Sears sold its Coldwell Banker Commercial Real Estate Services subsidiary to a group of investors but retained the residentialoperations. Earlier this year, the new commercial company changed its name to CB Commercial.

The Premier offices in Utah are independently owned and operated by members of Coldwell Banker Residential Affiliates, owned by the Sears Financial Network. Members operate similar to franchises. There is also a group of Coldwell Banker residential offices that is owned directly by Sears.

The growth of Premier's Utah operation isn't limited to sales and agents. Last month, the company signed a lease to relocate and expand its Fort Union office into 9,000 square feet of space in Union Park Center, nearly doubling its size. The move will take place this month.

Other Coldwell Banker Premier offices are located in the Salt Lake headquarters at 2180 S. 1300 East, in Davis County, Ogden, Park City and St. George.

Premier is also expanding its Sugar House and Bountiful sales offices. The South Davis office, in Bountiful's Gateway Park, is scheduled to expand later this year. The St. George office opened last July and has shown steady growth over the past 10 months.

Webber forecasts Utah as "a very exciting place to be" over the next 10 years for the real estate industry, although he believes consolidation of brokerages will continue.

"There will be a lot fewer of them," he said, noting that 10 formerly independent brokerages have merged with Premier over the past few years.

"There are so many advantages to being associated with a large national brokerage that the financial commitment (of going it alone) doesn't make sense," said Webber. "There's still a niche for the strong, independent broker but most in Utah have to sell, too, and it's very difficult to be a sales person and company manager at the same time."

Webber said for years he "swore to remain independent," but "looking back, I don't think I'd do it again."

Today, he said, there are four or five companies doing 70 percent of the business, not the case as recently as five years ago. Webber said Coldwell Banker Premier has helped bring about much of that consolidation but denied being a trendsetter. "It's been going on for some time across the country."