Just about anything can be bought and sold on the Internet these days. Even bank branches.
Last week, for example, Washington Mutual Inc. set up a Web site listing the 162 California offices it plans to sell as a result of its Oct. 1 purchase of H.F. Ahmanson & Co.
"With the increasing use of the Web by people in all areas, this was a great way to get our offering out there to the public," said Washington Mutual senior vice president Kent A. Wiegel.
When selling a substantial number of branches, banks and thrifts often prefer to sell in bulk. But branches packaged together usually sell for a discount. Seattle-based Washington Mutual decided that it could do better by selling its locations individually. In fact, analysts said that the thrift company could score significant premiums from the sales.
"The market in California is very strong," said Thomas F. Theurkauf, an analyst with Keefe Bruyette & Woods in New York. "I wouldn't rule out some pretty fancy gains for Washington Mutual-I'm sure they are carrying many of these branches on their books at far less than market value."
One nice benefit of using the Internet is that Washington Mutual has been able to keep track of the level of interest in each individual branch by the number of times it has been visited on the Web page.
Clicking on a street address brings up a photo of the branch, along with a detailed description of the building, the size of the surrounding population, and the average household income in the area. For example, one Home Savings branch in Burlingame is described as the "largest and most attractive building in the immediate vicinity" with a "substantial financial institution appearance."
Average household income within one mile of the Burlingame branch is $83,698, according to the Web site.
Each listing on the Web page gives the name and phone number of a local real estate agent to contact for more information about the particular branch. The Web address is www.wmcbre.com, and Coldwell Banker is managing the real estate sales.
Washington Mutual has been getting calls from potential buyers ever since October, when the $174.3 billion-asset thrift released a detailed list of the branches to be sold, Mr. Wiegel said.
While competing financial institutions have shown interest, he said, video rental companies, small medical clinics, real estate agents, insurance agencies, and the Starbucks Coffee chain have also been curious about the branches.
"There's a lot of interest from across a wide spectrum," Mr. Wiegel said.
The price Washington Mutual fetches for each branch will vary widely, depending upon location, size, and local market conditions, Mr. Wiegel said. For example, a branch in Newport Beach has drawn "white hot interest," he said.
"That will go for multimillions of dollars," according to Mr. Wiegel.
However, a rural location, such as a branch in Tracy, will net something in the low hundreds of thousands, he said.
Most of the branches are still serving customers. They will not be vacated until after the California conversions are completed, Mr. Wiegel said.
Northern California branches were integrated last weekend, while the Southern California locations will be melded into Washington Mutual at the end of May.
The branch sales should be completed within a year, Mr. Wiegel said. Customer accounts are not being sold. They will be shifted to nearby Washington Mutual locations.