‘New’ kind of real estate firm expanding in the Lehigh Valley

Mike Maher –

A Philadelphia-based real estate company that’s trying to shake up the homebuying industry is expanding its presence in the Lehigh Valley. 

Houwzer, which was founded in 2015, is the first certified B Corp. company in the real estate industry, and its goal is to take some of the hassle out of buying and selling a home by offering most all of the services someone would need to buy or sell a home and without the pressure of commissioned sales. 

Mike Maher, founder of Houwzer, said with the current real estate market, where there are higher prices and lower inventory, having a system that smooths over the gaps in the real estate process is something he thinks is helpful. 

The first thing that is different about the firm is that its sellers are given salaries instead of a commission. 

“We just didn’t believe with the current technology out there that it costs 6% to sell a home,” Maher said. 

Instead, Houwzer charges a $5,000 flat fee to cover the listing and marketing of the property. 

“It’s not a discount,” he explained. “It’s just what we think is a fair price.” 

There is then a 2% commission to be paid by the buyer. 

Houwzer also has a mortgage brokerage that works with about a dozen lenders. The mortgage brokers are also salaried instead of on commission, so they can make decisions based on what product is best for the borrower, rather than what kind of commission they receive. 

Houwzer also offers title services, with plans to offer homeowners insurance in the future. 

Larry Lantz –

“It helps in that if you’re the buyer or the seller everything is in one house,” said Larry Lantz, one of the two Realtors who are now working specifically in the Greater Lehigh Valley region. “You only have to give your information once and Houwzer will search around for the best deal for you. It’s just much more convenient for the buyer.” 

Prior to joining Houwzer, Lantz was a Realtor in the Lehigh Valley for 11 years. He said he was attracted to the concept of salaried versus commissioned sales and liked the whole culture the company offered. 

“I’m not pushing someone to buy a home at a higher price so I can get a higher commission,” he said. 

Maher said he was looking at all of the stakeholders in the real estate process when he was developing Houwzer. He wanted consumers to have price transparency and know where their money was going and for agents to not have to worry about putting food on the table if they don’t sell houses. 

He noted that most new real estate agents – about 70% — don’t make it past their first year in the business with as many as 90% not lasting past two years. He said he felt that was a business model that had to change to modernize the industry. 

“This streamlines the transaction,” said. 

And while the company is looking to grow nationally, Maher said he is particularly excited about the company’s growth into the Lehigh Valley because of its proximity to the Philadelphia region where Houwzer is headquartered. 

“We’re really excited about the Lehigh Valley and the opportunity to grow our agent footprint,” he said. 

Houwzer is a member of Lehigh Valley Realtors. 


Morganelli Properties to move headquarters to iconic Bethlehem site

This iconic building, formerly home to an ice cream shop and pharmacy, will be the headquarters of Morganelli Properties PHOTO/PROVIDED –

Morganelli Properties has purchased the iconic former ice cream shop and pharmacy building across from Liberty High School at 1124 Linden Street, Bethlehem, for its new headquarters.  

The locally owned real estate company plans to renovate the building and open its new headquarters by summer. 

 Jeff Barber of Lehigh Financial Group LLC helped brother/owners John and Chris Morganelli obtain an SBA loan to purchase the property for $820,000 and complete the renovations. The deal closed at the end of February.  

Morganelli Properties is currently located at 1057 Main Street in Hellertown in the space it rented when the firm opened four years ago.  

“We are super excited about this move, said Chris Morganelli, vice president. “Our new headquarters are going to be state-of-the-art, really tasteful and classy.”  

Morganelli and his brother John, who is president of the firm, grew up in Bethlehem and would go on family outings to the ice cream shop, Nuts About Ice Cream, which recently closed after 33 years in business. 

 Lucy Lennon of Morganelli Properties was the listing agent for the 7,500-plus square-foot building that has two rental units on the second and third floors and that will remain. Paul Harak of Holzinger, Harak & Scomillio provided the legal work. 

 Heather McFadden is the broker of record and an owner of the firm. She, too, said she is excited to move to an “iconic building” in such a “prime location.”  

“We plan to hold a grand opening and show the public what we’ve done when it is ready,” Chris Morganelli said. “We are expecting the renovations to take two to three months and they are starting now.” Renovations are planned for both inside and out.  

He said that Morganelli Properties’ buying the building makes a statement to the community: “We are here and not going anywhere.” 

Montgomery County retail center sells for $161 million

A Bethesda-based real estate firm and its partner have bought a 760,000-square-foot retail center in the Greater Philadelphia region for $161.75 million, the companies announced Friday.

Finmarc Management, Inc. partnered with New York-based investment and operating firm KPR Centers on the acquisition.

Providence Town Center, which is in Collegeville, a town northwest of Philadelphia, first opened in 2009 and features 11 anchor tenants, led by a Wegmans Food Markets. The center has 70 tenants, including retail, dining, medical and more. The center is on 82 acres of land at 100 Town Center.

“The new ownership team has plans for improvements to the center to drive a higher velocity of customer traffic to the already busy Town Center,” Finmarc Principal and Co-Founder David Fink said in a news release. “This strategy and preliminary activity have already garnered interest from additional national and regional tenants looking to establish a presence at Providence Town Center.”

The shopping center is well-positioned for future success, the companies said, with the surrounding communities having a growing population of just under 125,000. Nearby residential communities have expanded by more than 42% in the past two decades, and a 700-unit apartment project is planned.

The shopping center is also adjacent to Route 422, which almost 65,000 vehicles travel daily, and Route 29, which about 20,000 vehicles travel daily.

“Providence Town Center in an institutional-quality regional shopping center and, with more than a dozen high-performing anchor tenants including Wegmans Food Markets, is among the dominant retail venues in the greater Philadelphia trade area,” Fink said. “The surrounding demographics led by an ever-growing residential population, together with the presence of major employers and employment centers, provide us with tremendous confidence about the asset’s long-term performance.”

This follows another Philadelphia-area transition by the two companies; late last year, Finmarc and KPR sold Red Lion Plaza, a shopping center at 9950 Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia for $56.45 million that had been owned by a joint venture of the two companies since 2013. The identity of the buyers was not disclosed.

The firm has also recently broken into the North Carolina market through the $58 million acquisition of a 383,000-square-foot retail center in Raleigh.

Real estate developer making changes to adapt to post COVID-19 demand

The Pinnacle Building at 65 E. Elizabeth Ave., Bethlehem converted its top floors from offices to apartments several years ago. The building is currently undergoing renovations. –

In the nearly two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, much has changed in commercial real estate with the lines between home and office becoming blurred. 

Many companies are downsizing or rightsizing their office space, or going entirely remote, leading to many vacancies in office buildings. 

At the same time, the Lehigh Valley apartment rental market has skyrocketed as more people look to move into smaller communities, like those found in this area, as compared to larger urban areas like New York or Philadelphia. 

The switch to a remote workspace has allowed much of this migration to happen as people find they no longer have to live near their employer. 

But since these potential renters will be working from the apartments they are moving into, apartment property owners need to be mindful of the new needs that are arising. 

Larken Associates has two properties in Bethlehem that highlight how real estate managers have had to get creative to meet the changing dynamic. 

The Pinnacle Building at 65 E. Elizabeth Ave. Is one example of how the industry has changed. 

Several years ago, before the pandemic and before Larken owned the building, the 10-story property was drastically renovated, turning the top six floors from office space into apartments. 

Jess Heckman, director of residential asset management for Larken, said the demand for apartments has been growing for years.  

“The demand is just insane right now,” she said. “Our occupancy has been great because of the demand.” 

In fact, she said like the Pinnacle building, Larken is converting other office spaces into apartments. She said one project in New Jersey has demolished an old office building to be replaced by 250 apartment units. 

But, she said, it’s not just a matter of “if you build it, they will come.” Larken is making design changes to the new apartments it constructs to make it easier for tenants to work from home. 

“We make sure we have areas set up for working, that there’s an area that is a little separate where they can set up a desk and a computer and use it for office space,” Heckman said. 

She said common areas are also being repurposed. Since it’s sometimes difficult to work from home if there are children, or maybe the worker just needs a change of scenery, Larken is turning community room space into an area that’s work friendly. 

She said many of their community rooms, like at the Pinnacle, now have Wi-Fi and printers for tenants to work from. 

“There is the availability for a change of scenery, but not necessarily with a lot of people, like if you set up at a Starbucks or someplace like that,” she said. “This is really bringing people in having those amenities on site.” 

At 3 West Broad St., Bethlehem traditional office space has been converted into retail space and will be used by a hibachi restaurant and a hair salon. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

So, what about those offices that are being vacated or downsized? 

Rob Marek, executive vice president of commercial real estate for Larken, said 3 West Broad St. in Bethlehem is a good example of how his company used creative thinking to keep the property fully leased. 

He said that when a 4,200-square-foot office space in the building was available after the tenant closed its office, he found something besides another corporate client to take the space. 

Instead, he filled it with a soon-to-open hibachi restaurant, Steak & Steel Hibachi, and a hair salon, Catalina Dry Bar. 

Of course, Marek said offices aren’t being completely abandoned. 

“I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of circumstances because of the pandemic,” he said. He said most of the cases are about right sizing. “One business is going remote, but then a different business is taking the space.” 

Especially with larger companies, Marek said there has been a great deal of social pressure to continue to let employees work from home, so less space is needed. 

However, many of those companies still need a central office space for staff that need to collaborate in person. 

In many cases, that just means companies are looking for smaller offices.  Marek said Larken has benefited because of companies leaving larger offices in bigger cities and opening smaller offices in regions like Bethlehem. 

He said he’s had companies coming from 20,000-square-foot suites into 5,000-square-foot suites and similar transactions. 

What companies are looking for in an office space is also changing. 

A few years ago, Marek said, open-space-concept offices were all the rage. Now, since the pandemic, that trend has reversed itself and more people want to go back to working in smaller, separate offices rather than a large communal space. 

“People are feeling more vulnerable in an open space,” he said. 

Other changes companies are looking for include improved HVAC, with air filtration to help prevent the spread of viruses, and more hard surfaces that are easier to clean. 

The big trend now is toward coworking space, said Marek. 

He said many people no longer have offices to go to but may need a professional space to work out of occasionally. 

Larken has been converting some of its properties into coworking space. He said that in one New Jersey property the company is taking a 10,000-square-foot office space and turning it into 15 smaller executive suites. Those spaces usually have a common area such as a kitchen or conference room that all those office tenants can use instead of a formal office. 

The industry is changing, and Marek said for property managers to survive, they need to adapt, change and be more creative to stay on top of the evolving demand. 

Higher prices, low inventory impact home sales in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania housing prices rose 14% last year reaching a median price of $192,040, up from $168,152 in 2020, according to a housing market report prepared for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. 

The median price in December was $194,637, up about 9% compared to $178,475 in December 2020. 

 “The housing market in the commonwealth has kept its rapid pace through 2021. In fact, we’ve seen home sale prices steadily increase over the past five years,” said PAR President Christopher Beadling. “The median home sale price is up about 37% compared to approximately $140,000 in 2017, which shows that purchasing a home is a good, long-term investment, particularly when interest rates remain relatively low.” 

 Inventory continues to be a challenge in the Pennsylvania market. Listings were down 26% in December, compared to the same time in 2020. “There were more than 152,000 fewer listings in 2021 compared to the previous year,” Beadling said. “That makes it difficult for buyers looking to purchase a home, particularly as we’ve seen more buyers enter the market.” 

 The tighter inventory has led to the number of home sales declining about 5.5% in December, compared to the same time in 2020. 

Wolf administration launches $350 million Pa. homeowner assistance fund 

Pennsylvania homeowners that are at or below 150% of their region’s median income will soon be able to apply for financial assistance through the new Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund (PAHAF). 

The Wolf administration announced this week that the new fund, administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), has been approved by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

The fund consists of $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds through the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Homeowner Assistance Fund and will be given to Pennsylvania homeowners grappling with unforeseen financial hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“As we continue to advance our COVID-19 recovery efforts, we must address the rising number of homeowners facing possible loss of their homes and foreclosure – this program will do just that,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. “The Homeowner Assistance Fund will prioritize individuals and families with the greatest need, as well as those who are socially disadvantaged. I am grateful that the U.S. Treasury has approved Pennsylvania’s plan, and we can start the new year by distributing this critical funding to homeowners.”   

PAHAF will use the funds to provide eligible Pennsylvania homeowners with much-needed assistance to prevent and/or ease mortgage delinquencies, defaults, foreclosures, displacement and utility disconnection. 

Our mission is to help Pennsylvanians achieve housing stability despite the many hardships faced during these uncertain times,” said Robin Wiessmann, executive director and CEO of the PHFA. “PAHAF will provide critical support to eligible Pennsylvania homeowners, allowing families to recover and helping communities overcome the devastating financial and economic impacts of the pandemic.“ 

Applications for the fund open on Feb. 1. applicants that qualify for the assistance must be a Pennsylvania homeowner that saw a reduction of income or increase in living expenses due to the pandemic after January 21, 2020.