It’s storytelling time at Crye-Leike, Realtors on Market Street, where the company’s eldest agent and its 2019 rookie of the year have met to compare notes on their experiences in real estate.
At 80, Graham Burns is the senior agent. A wellspring of comical anecdotes, she doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. “I can’t hide my age any longer,” she quips. “My family threw a big party for me on my birthday. I said, ‘We can do this now, but when I die, don’t do anything.’”
Chrissy Jones, 36, is at the table representing the newer local agents. She and Burns have met to chat about their differences and exchange the wisdom each one has acquired as a Realtor at a different stage in her career.
At the moment, however, they’re focused on the things they have in common.
For starters, each woman is a mother who became a Realtor as her life experienced a tectonic shift centered around children.
Burns entered the real estate profession in her fifties as the last of her seven children attended high school. Although she had taught nursery school for many years, it was her first stab at a career.
“I was at a party with Charlie Walldorf and said, ‘At some point, I might enjoy going into real estate.’ He said, ‘When you do, come see me.’ So I did,” Burns recalls.
Jones became a Realtor after giving birth to her first child and realizing she didn’t want to return to her job recruiting boarding students for Baylor School, since the position involved a lot of traveling.
“I was sending a friend listings on Lookout Mountain, and my husband says, ‘Why don’t you get your real estate license? Get paid to do this.’ Two weeks later, I started the licensing course, and two months after that, I hung my license in this office.”
Graham and Jones also learn they share a love for helping people accomplish their goals. Neither uses the word “client.”
“I’ve enjoyed the relationships I’ve developed and the people I’ve worked with,” the elder Realtor says. “And I’ve loved the challenge of helping someone either sell a house or find the right house.”
“I love finding people a home,” Jones says, echoing Graham. “One day, I’ll be showing a half a million-dollar house, and the next day, I’ll be showing a $100,000 house. But that doesn’t matter. Helping someone find what’s going to work for them is fun.”
“Just the satisfaction of having met your buyer’s or seller’s needs is huge,” Burns says with a slight nod. “I’ve always felt everyone deserves my best, regardless of the price range. If they reached out to me, they deserve it.”
“The commission can’t be your driving factor in this business,” Jones says, extending the topic. “It has to be helping people with their needs, no matter what those are.”
Having established common ground, Burns and Jones hit on one of the differences between them: their response to the real estate industry’s reliance on technology.
Although Burns became a Realtor in the relatively modern year of 1994, technology had not yet impacted the profession in a significant way. She even remembers completing handwritten forms with white, pink and yellow copies glued together at the top.
But even if Burns had used smartphone apps from the start, she might not have taken well to them.
“When I was in college, I took a typing class. I had it one hour a day, five days a week for nine months. At the end of the year, I typed minus 10 words a minute because they counted off errors,” Burns says with a laugh. She then adds that her keying on smart devices is only slightly better.
However, when Jones became a Realtor in 2016, the internet, client databases and the industry’s other uses of technology were already old hat to her. But she still slipped as she navigated the learning curve all agents encounter at the start of their career.
“I had to write my very first offer really quickly because I was competing against another bid. But I had no idea what I was doing – I didn’t even know where to begin – and our managing broker, Vicki Trapp, was out of town.”
Fortunately, one of the many technological luxuries Realtors employ daily came to Jones’ rescue.
“I texted Vicki, who was in meetings in Nashville, for help. And then I emailed her the offer before I sent it to the client to check it,” she says. “And I’m happy to say I sold the house.”
At this point, Burns and Jones agree that another one of the enjoyable things about being a Realtor is the camaraderie among agents and the ways in which they help each other.
“I had a wonderful mentor – Cliff Kauffman at Walldorf,” Burns reminisces. “One day, he asked me about my farm. I told him I didn’t live on a farm. But he was referring to what people today call your sphere.”
“Everyone in this office has been incredibly helpful,” Jones says, referring to Crye-Leike’s downtown office. “I can’t count the number of times someone has dropped what they’re doing to answer a question for me. This has been the most welcoming place to work.”
Burns and Jones have also discovered learning never ends in the real estate business. This is partly due to the extensive knowledge agents must acquire and retain and the frequent changes to rules and procedures. But it also has to do with the lessons Realtors must learn by either doing or making mistakes.
Burns says she hopes Jones – and every other Realtor, for that matter – never makes what could have been the biggest mistake of her career: Driving alone with a client to a remote location.
“I was on floor duty at Waldorf when this fellow came in and pulled some papers for a property in Sequatchie Valley he wanted to sell out of a knapsack. I said, ‘We can meet there tomorrow,” and he said, ‘I don’t have a car.’ I thought, ‘Oh dear, he’s going to go with me.’
“So we were out there in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t have any cellphone service. I panicked. Nobody on the planet would have ever found me. I was tempted to get in my car and drive away.
“I haven’t done that since. You learn lessons along the way.”
In contrast, Burns says the thing in which she has the most pride as she looks back on her years in real estate is how she’s always endeavored to do the right thing – even at the risk of a commission check.
“Many people think real estate agents are like used car salesmen. Some of them are, but your most important assets are your honesty and your integrity,” she says. “I always say a quick prayer before I show a house that I’ll represent the right things.
“You can’t control every aspect of your life, but you can control your character, and by George, do it.”
As Burns passes on the wisdom she’s acquired, she offers an encouraging word about what Jones feels is the most challenging aspect of being a Realtor: Securing new clients.
Although Jones sold more real estate than any other new Crye-Leike agent in Chattanooga during her first year, her business has experienced a slight drop since then. This has opened her eyes to the amount of competition she has.
“There are a lot of fantastic real estate agents in Chattanooga,” she says. “I live on Lookout Mountain, and it’s crawling with agents.”
Burns went through a much drier spell during her sophomore year in real estate. At the start of 1995, her late husband, Bud, changed the screen saver on her computer to display her commission up to that point. For three months, every time Burns sat down at her computer, she saw “$47” – the commission she’d earning selling a small St. Elmo lot – bouncing across the screen.
“I wasn’t a good business woman. When I would say, ‘I have something under contract,’ Bud would say, ‘What would the commission be?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know – and I don’t want to know until I get to the closing table.’”
Business eventually picked up for Burns, and she went on to develop a career that continues to sustain her. So, when she hears that a fellow Realtor is confronting the challenges of being in a competitive business, she encourages them to stay the course.
“You have to hang in there and believe you made the right choices,” Burns says. “And reach out to people. It’s important to stay in touch with them.
“Every year, I send out a little calendar with my picture. People say, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing what your picture is going to be this year.’ That’s nice.”
Jones nods and says she hopes her career is as long and fruitful as the one Burns has enjoyed. There’s no telling how long that career will be, though, as Burns won’t be retiring any time soon.
“As long as my brain halfway works and my body halfway moves, I’d like to keep doing this. After dealing with diapers nonstop for 16 years, this has been refreshing.
“Besides, I’d be home cleaning closets, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t play bridge and I don’t garden, so I work. It’s fun, and I need a reason to get up in the morning.”
Burns says she’s glad she hung in there because real estate has been a wonderful profession. “Just let me know when it’s time for me to quit,” she says, looking at Jones.
“Not any time soon,” Jones replies.