In a move to strengthen its market position, Philadelphia-based Prime Bancorp is buying Devon, Pa.-based First Sterling Bancorp for $29 million.

The deal for $229 million-asset First Sterling would give the thrift access to Philadelphia's western suburbs, a market its officials said they have wanted to enter. The purchase is to add four branches to Prime's current 18 in Philadelphia, Bucks, and Montgomery counties.

Officials of Prime expect the deal to close this year and begin adding to the company's earnings in 1997.

James J. Lynch, Prime Bancorp's president and chief executive, said the loan portfolio at First Sterling, which opened in 1988, has been growing faster than its deposits.

First Sterling shareholders are to get one share of Prime stock for each of their own shares in a deal worth 218% of First Sterling's book value. The merger, which remains subject to shareholder and regulatory approvals, is expected to close this year.

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