Mighty Minis: Small brokerages play a big role in local real estate

Everyone knows the big players on the real estate scene that boast 10, 20 or more Realtors in each office.
But smaller operations abound in northern Michigan – boutique brokerages with a handful of agents. These smaller outfits say that they are not only surviving, but thriving.

“I groove on it. Every day there’s something different,” said Rob Serbin, owner of Serbin Real Estate in Glen Arbor. The resort town in Leelanau County supports several smaller brokerages in addition to a Coldwell Banker Schmidt Realtors office. “There’s enough to go around.”

Travel north and the story is much the same. Tiny Alden is home to Paradise Properties USA. Bellaire boasts bluNorth Realty. Traverse City is home to smaller operations as well, such as Classic Real Estate and Traverse North Realty.

Many of the smaller companies eschew the traditional brick and mortar office. In an age where technology puts thousands of properties just a click away, building a business on the back of a laptop and cell phone makes perfect sense. The co-owners of d3 realty live in Beulah and Traverse City, respectively, while its two other agents live in Frankfort. They service the entire five-county area with no central office.

“Nobody walks into an office anymore,” said Bob Edwards, owner of bluNorth Realty in Bellaire. “Especially millennials. They don’t want to talk to a Realtor until it’s time to do a deal. It [our business] is all internet-based. I don’t have the cost and burden of maintaining an office.”

Many say the smaller size is an advantage for their clients, giving them the ability to negotiate deals or commissions their competitors at corporate offices are unable to do.

“I can do whatever I want. It’s my company,” said Barb Cooper of Classic Real Estate in Traverse City.

Here’s a look at some of the smaller real estate companies in the area.


d3 realty, Frankfort/Traverse City

Owners/principals: Rebecca Cole, Jennifer Martin

Year started: The company was created with the merger of d3 Dwellings & Development with Land Consulting Services in April of 2019 and is now doing business as d3 realty.

Number of agents: Four

Niche: While the company works with buyers and sellers in the five-county area, it is building its business on the back of its unique services: Cole is a certified stager and Realtor. Her partner Martin is a builder and Realtor, while Jay White has several years of experience in land division and consulting.

Advantages of working with a smaller brokerage? Personal touch, not being referred over to a “team member” to service, attention to detail, and the added services they bring to the table.

2018 Sales: $18-$20 million


Serbin Realty, Glen Arbor

Owner/principal: Rob Serbin

Year started: 2008

Niche: The company does most of its business on the western front of Leelanau County. “For practical reasons, we really concentrate on the tri-county area [Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Benzie] for the most part,” said Serbin.

Number of agents: Six right now, looking for a seventh.

Why work with a smaller brokerage? “We’re not bound by corporate structure. We like to think we support local businesses and the money stays here. You vote with your dollars when you do that,” Serbin said.

2018 Sales: $22,950,000


The Martin Company, Glen Arbor

Owner/principal: John Martin

Year started: 1997. “I had been affiliated with Coldwell Banker Schmidt for 16 years.  The initial team was Doug Manning, Pam DePuy, Rob Serbin and myself. Pam DePuy has become our top sales associate, Doug Manning retired years ago, and recently passed away. Rob Serbin formed his own firm and has continued to be a force in real estate,” said Martin.

Number of agents: Six

Niche: “We specialized in waterfront homes and land, farms and acreage. I was involved in several land developments along the way. Today, 22 years later, we continue to focus on the water frontage. It’s challenging at times with the National Lakeshore controlling a huge slice of the water frontage. We continue to strive to provide unequaled service to our sellers and buyers,” Martin said.

Why work with a smaller office? A team approach benefits the clients, according to Martin. “Customers want service. If I’m not around, an associate steps in. If you help them, they’ll help you,” he said.

2018 Sales: $23 million, about evenly split: $11.3 million listed and $11.8 sold.


bluNorth Realty, Bellaire

Owner/principal: Bob Edwards

Year started: 2007

Niche: Riverfront properties in northern Michigan from U.S. 10 to the bridge. “The vast majority of our sales comes from our [other] website, TroutCountryProperties.com. We’re not out to poach. The leads from our site are enough. It keeps us busy,” Edwards said.

Why work with a smaller brokerage? “I always thought real estate commissions were absurd. I only charge five percent. It’s enough to cover our expenses and make a little profit,” he said.

2018 Sales: $3 million


Paradise Properties, Alden

Owner/Principal: Gary Schleiter

Year started: 1997, as a vacation rental business.

Number of agents: Six

Niche: Working with renters/vacationers turned buyers. Geographically, Traverse City to Charlevoix, though mostly in the Antrim area.

Why work with a smaller brokerage? “We make deals happen on our reputation. We have the ability to make judgment calls for all aspects of a sale,” Schleiter said.

2018 Sales: $13 million-plus


Traverse North Realty, Traverse City

Owner/principal: Ken Weaver

Year started: 2010

Number of agents: Four

Niche: Geographically, the east side of Traverse City, especially waterfront and Old Mission Peninsula. “But you can’t keyhole yourself too much,” said Weaver. It is also one of the leading brokerages in the state in marketing and selling resort and campground listings. “It’s a specialty of Rita Rathburn, one of our agents.  She is one of the most successful resort agents in the Midwest.”

Why work with a smaller office? “The buck stops with me,” Weaver said. “We pay attention. We’re focused on our customers. If we have a client, everyone in the company is focused on [that person]. The internet has equalized how we all get and expose our listings. There’s no advantage to a larger brokerage.”

2018 Sales: Approximately $7.5 million in sales, plus Weaver builds small spec homes, typically one per year.


Classic Real Estate, Traverse City

Owner/principal: Barb Cooper

Year started 2018 (Cooper previously operated as an independent, then last year restarted the company after a five-year tenure with another firm)

Number of agents: Two – Cooper and her niece Bailey Duperon, based in Leland.

Niche: Condominium sales. “I started in real estate at the Homestead. That’s where I learned about condos. Condos are my thing,” she said.

Why work with a smaller company? Flexibility. “It’s my business and I can negotiate prices and commissions,” said Cooper.

2018 Sales: $3.5 million, 8-10 listings.