As a daughter of Chattanooga businessman Henry Luken, Heather Luken has endured more than a few barbs about her allegedly riding her father’s coattails. But as she’s proving with her new venture as a residential Realtor that she’s actually making her own way in the world.
Luken’s foray into selling homes comes just more than a year after she became a licensed Realtor and joined her father’s real estate company, Luken Holdings, with the intent of selling commercial properties.
However, unlike her father, she’s not made for the commercial world, the 26-year-old explains.
“It’s not my forte. I’m a people person, not a suit-and-tie, sit-at-the-table person,” she clarifies, her hand gestures emphasizing nearly every word. “I’m also very friendly, which can come off as not being serious.”
While Luken was learning the ropes of commercial real estate under the guidance of Elizabeth Robertson, managing broker of Luken Holdings, she also pursued residential deals.
Her first opportunity came in February – six months after she earned her license – when a buyer contacted her via Facebook and said he was searching for an investment property.
Although it was a single, unsolicited message, it signaled a looming shift in Luken’s career.
After presenting the investor with a few possibilities he turned down, Luken learned about the owners of a renovated duplex who were planning to sell their property on their own.
Believing the property was a golden opportunity, Luken ran comps based on photos taken before the rehab and was surprised to see the owners were asking $40,000 more than their purchase price two years earlier.
After touring the duplex, however, Luken says she came to believe the owners had actually underpriced their property.
“As I’m walking through it, I’m thinking, ‘This place is worth way more than $135,000; it’s worth at least $160,000,’” she recalls, replicating her excitement at the time by stiffening her posture and widening her eyes. “They had done amazing work on the place.”
Luken thought it was an ideal opportunity for her investor. He agreed – and then took the wind out of her sails when he asked her to offer the owners $92,000.
Stunned, Luken didn’t write the offer. “I felt like that was not appropriate,” she explains, her posture softening. “You have to maintain your reputation as a Realtor. You don’t want to be an agent who lowballs people because who wants to work with someone who constantly sends insulting offers?”
After the investor asked her to make similarly low offers on a few other properties, Luken learned what she calls her first painful lesson in real estate – how to tell a client she no longer thinks they should work together.
Although Luken thought the duplex was a lost cause, she reached out to the owners to tell them they were setting themselves up for a loss. “I said, ‘You’re low-balling yourself. I have it at 160. Just get what it’s truly worth.’”
To her surprise, Luken says, the couple listed the property with her. Although she comped the duplex at $202,000 after taking the renovations into full account, the owners insisted on selling it for $183,000, claiming they didn’t want to be greedy. Luken agreed – and received seven written offers within four hours of posting the listing.
Luken ultimately sold the duplex for $185,000 – $50,000 more than the owners were initially going to ask and $93,000 more than the investor wanted her to offer.
Luken says she felt like she’d hit a grand slam. “I could not have been blessed with a better first listing,” she says, holding her hands up in a gesture of wonder. “That deal hook-line-and-sinkered me as far as doing residential real estate.”
Although Luken started to pursue more residential listings, she pushed forward with commercial real estate. Having spent her life watching her father work, she says it was where she believed she belonged.
But after one year of work, Luken had yet to make a commercial deal. She had, however, sold just under $1.5 million in residential real estate. As she looked at the balance, she embraced what she’d subconsciously known since selling the duplex.
“I believe if something is meant to be, it will be. One of my recent clients really brought that home to me. At every turn, she’d say, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’ After every contract we didn’t get, she’d say, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’ And when we finally found the place that was meant to be, I couldn’t have imagined a better home for her.”
In the same manner, Luken says things that are not meant to happen won’t. So, she told Robertson she was leaving.
Although Luken Holdings has a small number of residential agents, Luken says the firm is known for its commercial work, and she wanted to align with a brokerage populated with residential agents.
With this in mind, she called Christi Doll, principal broker and owner of Premier Property Group, whom she’d met a year earlier at a Greater Chattanooga Realtors’ function.
Doll welcomed Luken with open arms, a key to the office and a box of business cards.
“I wanted to work at an office with dozens of agents, where I could send an email asking, ‘I have a client who’s looking for a place like this. Does anyone know of anything?’”
One could say Luken has been looking for her place in the world ever since she began riding her bike to her first job – polishing silver at a small jewelry shop.
After graduating from Baylor – a school she says she was privileged to attend – Luken began taking civil engineering classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. One of her older sisters is a civil engineer, and she initially wanted to follow in her footsteps.
“Who doesn’t want to be like their older sibling?” Luken asks with a shrug.
But much like her venture into commercial real estate, Luken soon learned this was not the path she wanted to take.
“I was not only the only female in every class but also the only blonde female in every class,” she remembers. “People made quite a few remarks about not only my hair color but also the fact that I was the only female in the class.”
Like a traveler who finds her way by exploring paths not intended to be her final destination, Luken went to work for her father, first at his Battlefield golf course, which she eventually managed, and then in human resources at Luken Communications (now Reach High Media Group).
It was a time of discovery Luken says was necessary to bring her to where she’s meant to be.
“I learned a lot of lessons,” she says reflectively, her hands taking a rare break. “My dad tried to curtail the lessons; he’d say, ‘Don’t do this,’ and ‘Don’t do that.’ But once he realized I needed to learn my own way, he started to presenting me with opportunities.”
Throughout this process, Luken says her father encouraged and reassured her. “He’d say, ‘This is not where you’re going; it’s just a starting point. You’re going to take these lessons and do your own thing.’”
Luken says her father did not expect her thing to be real estate, but with a productive first year in the residential market under her belt and a new professional home at Premier, she notes she’s finally stepped onto the path that will span the coming years.
“Nothing makes me happier than making someone else happy,” she adds. “I don’t want you to buy a house because I pressured you into buying it; I want us to find your dream home, and then I’ll fight tooth and nail to get it for you.”
Luken’s father, as well her friends and colleagues, have continued to cheer her on as she’s moved forward with homes sales.
Whitney Harvey, an agent with Real Estate Partners and a friend, says she’s known since Luken announced her decision to become a Realtor that she’d succeed.
“I love being the backbone of my clients and seeing their joy when they close on a home,” Harvey says. “Heather thrives on this, as well. She’s absolutely destined for greatness.”
When veteran Realtor Debbie Radford of The Group and Luken listed separate properties in the same neighborhood, the two women pooled their knowledge about the area to their mutual benefit. Radford says she was impressed with Luken’s generosity.
“I admire Heather’s drive to help others combined with her passion to learn, grow and make her own place in the real estate community.”
Luken’s goal for the coming year is to increase her volume to $3 million. She’s pacing herself, she says, because someone with shorter legs is walking alongside her.
That someone is R.J., Luken’s 3-year-old son and apparently a force of nature.
Luken picks up her phone and begins to swipe through photos of R.J. After several seconds (as a proud mother, her phone is packed with pictures), she stops at one in which her son has a black eye.
“He jumped off a table at school and didn’t land on his feet,” she laughs. “This kid jumps off everything. At one point, my dining room table had no chairs because he’d climb onto a chair in order to climb onto the table in order to jump off. And he’d wait until I’d go to the bathroom. I’d be like, ‘Being a mom is hard!’”
Being a mother is also motivating Luken to push harder to succeed, she says.
“Not to sound cheesy, but everything I do is for him; real estate is our livelihood. It’s how I afford to buy clothes for him and take him to Rock City.
“Plus, that kid can eat. When I lived by myself, I spent $25 a week on groceries. Now every time we go to the grocery store, it’s $200, and then he eats it all.”
R.J. is not the only foodie in the household; Luken also professes a love for tasty cuisine.
“I’m pretty much willing to try any kind of food,” she confesses. “I have a list of places to eat that, living here my whole life, you’d think I would have already tried.”
Luken’s other leisure time pursuits include making house numbers on stained wood and painting using alcohol ink. She likes to give the house numbers to friends (some of whom started as clients) and enjoys displaying the paintings in her home.
“A lot of people are shocked they’re mine, I guess because it’s not normal to hang your own artwork in your home,” she says, laughing again.
Crafting and making art is more than a way to relax for Luken, it’s also a way to keep her hands busy, making it therapeutic.
“It’s ADHD,” she reveals. “I used to take medicine for it, but I’ve learned to manage it in my own ways, such as constantly moving my hands when I talk.
“Someone approached me at a wedding and asked if I’m a Realtor. When I said yes, they said, ‘I could tell by the way you talk with your hands.’”
Luken says she was proud to say she’s a Realtor because the profession not only gives her the opportunity to help homebuyers and sellers, it also makes her happy.
“I’m very fortunate to be doing something I enjoy because not everyone can say that,” she says. “For a long time, I didn’t like what I was doing, but now I do.”
Luken also is proud of her work because it represents her independence in a world in away from her father’s coattails.
“If you take the time to get to know me, you’ll see I’m my own person. I’m extremely grateful for every opportunity my dad has ever given me to grow, but I’m my own person. That’s always been a big thing for me.”