By Alison Rice. After weeks of speculation, Florida's largest independent real estate brokerage has a new owner.

On April 17, NRT, a division of New York--based Cendant Corp. (NYSE: CD), purchased Arvida Realty Services from The St. Joe Co. (NYSE: JOE) of Jacksonville, Fla., for $170 million in cash.

NRT also owns the Coldwell Banker, Century 21, and ERA real estate franchises, making it the largest real estate brokerage in the country.

The deal, which did not include the Arvida home building business, streamlines the diversified St. Joe, which plans to use the cash to repurchase stock, develop land in Northwest Florida (where it owns more than a million acres), and pay down debt. The company also retained the Arvida name; ARS is now Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate.

St. Joe bought the realty business in 1998, with hopes of using the Arvida Realty Services sales force to support Arvida community sales. The reality of buyer profiles intervened. "What we found is that the new-product buyer was significantly different than the resale buyer," says Jerry Ray, senior vice president at the St. Joe Co., and ARS primarily handled customers interested in existing homes, not new construction.

Geography didn't help either. As St. Joe focused on Northwest Florida, it found Arvida home buyers didn't come from South Florida, but from cities just beyond the state: Houston, Atlanta, and other spots in the "Middle South."

As a result, St. Joe expects the sale of ARS and its 3,700 agents to have little effect on Arvida, which maintained a separate sales force.