When Sue Roberts Parks talks about what being a Realtor was like when she became licensed in 1981, it sounds like she’s drawing back the curtain on a primitive world that existed before humans had tools and could make fire.
“We didn’t have computers, internet, cellphones or lockboxes,” she begins, sounding like she’s setting the scene for a “Clan of the Cave Bear” novel. “We only had the MLS Listing Catalog, which did not include directions, disclosures, or tax records, and contained only one black and white picture of a home with minimal information about the property.”
One can imagine Roberts Parks, 72, telling this story as she sits around a campfire at a Realtor retreat, and the eyes of young agents widening in wonder as she describes how she calculated a seller’s Comparable Market Analysis by hand at their dining room table.
“You also went through their personal finances, tax records and bank statements to estimate how much home they could buy,” she’d continue. “You’d then talk with them about what they were looking for in a home and decide which ones to show them.”
The most unfathomable part of her story, though, would be her description of showing homes to a buyer.
“You’d schedule a time, plot your appointments on a large map and then call each listing office to reserve the key. On the day of the showing, you’d pick up the keys, meet your buyers at your office, drive them to each house and then return to your office and hopefully write an offer.
“If you needed to add a house during your tour, you had to find a phone booth, drop in a quarter, call the listing agent or company and then go pick up the key.”
One can imagine the gasps of disbelief as Roberts Parks then explains how she had to hand deliver every scrap of paperwork to the bank, mortgage or title company involved, necessitating even more time on the road.
In a final flourish of fantastical storytelling, she’d conclude with a coda about the Purchase and Sales Agreement, which at the time consisted of two pages and was four copies deep, with messy carbon paper laid between each page.
“My famous words were, ‘Press hard! The last copy is yours!’” she’d laugh.
If the retreat were being held during Halloween, Roberts Parks could then frighten the youngest agents with a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” style tale of horror about interest rates in 1981.
“The interest rate the month I started was 16%; the following month, it was 18%,” she’d say, leaning toward the flames to give her face a phantasmic glow. “I didn’t know any better but to go out and sell houses. People still bought and sold homes, even at those rates.”
While the new agents might scoff in disbelief, every word would be true and would paint a picture of how much working in real estate has changed over time.
As Roberts Parks illustrates just how different things are, she’s sitting not at an imaginary campfire but a very real conference table at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Realty Center in Hixson, where she continues to work with the same company she’s been with since her first day as a Realtor.
“I started with Wayne Powell Realty, which merged with Town & Country Realty to form Realty Center,” she recalls. “Since then, this company has been Better Homes and Gardens Realty Center, Prudential Realty Center and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Realty Center. And I’m still here.”
Many companies have asked Roberts Parks – a top-selling agent with the Realty Center family of offices – to join them, but she’s always turned them down, saying she’s not one to hop around.
“They offered me the world but I didn’t feel like moving would help my business. I am my business and I am the one who generates my business. The grass isn’t going to be greener elsewhere.
“Besides, this company has been wonderful to me. When I started in real estate, I wasn’t a super agent; I was a mediocre agent who was trying to raise her children. But they were good to me. So as I grew my business and became a multimillion dollar producer, why would I go somewhere else? I wanted to be loyal to the company that was loyal to me during my lean times.”
Real estate is not the only thing that evolved as Roberts Parks made a career out of selling homes; her life changed, too.
Robert Parks actually started in real estate in 1972 in New Castle, Indiana, her home state. A photograph of her younger self on a flyer for a company called Fannin Realty looks like a high school yearbook photo of another person – one with long, straight, jet black hair and an expression that says, “What have I gotten myself into?”
The flyer also sports a photo of her husband at the time, which provides an explanation for the look on her face.
“I don’t count that period of being in real estate because I did it part-time to help my husband,” she explains. “I had no interest in it.”
What the photo doesn’t show is that Roberts Parks was pregnant with her first child. Instead of having her mind on her husband’s real estate business, she was looking forward to being a mother.
Roberts Parks didn’t want to move to Chattanooga, either, and came “kicking and screaming” as her husband moved their family closer to his. But in the months that followed, she adapted and made the city her home.
“I thought, ‘Here I am. I need to make the best of it,’ and did whatever I could to meet people and start trying to feel at home.”
Roberts Parks took a bookkeeping job after she had a second daughter and both girls were in school, but she quickly realized she’d never make a dime, so she earned a local real estate license and went to work – sort of.
“I still didn’t put my all into it. I was trying to balance family and work.”
In a dizzying narrative leap, Roberts Parks then skips to the present, as if being a mother and Realtor fully defined her life.
“After my daughters grew even older, I was free to work more and developed my business into what it is today. And it became who I am because it’s all I’ve ever done other than raise my kids.”
The jump forward suggests Robert Parks’ life has seemed to pass quickly. But it also allows her to contrast her depictions of real estate in the antiquated 1980s with descriptions of how radically advanced the industry is today.
This time, there’s no imaginary campfire, only urgency in her voice as she describes a world that would have been the stuff of science fiction 40 years ago.
“You and your clients have instant access to almost everything,” she begins. “And your buyers and sellers expect you to be available around the clock to answer their questions.”
Instead of safeguarding the MLS Listing Catalog with their lives, Realtors now connect their buyers to the MLS and allow them to choose the houses they want to see.
“They can view houses online and more or less know if they want to make an offer before they see it in person,” Robert Parks says, describing a process that would have been unthinkable four decades ago.
To meet the expectations and needs of buyers and sellers, Realtors must now carry a toolbox that’s loaded with gear, she continues.
“You have to be computer savvy, make conference calls on your cellphone and sell homes while FaceTiming with a buyer in California, Puerto Rico or on the other side of the world. I’ve worked with clients that had their children translate for us,” she says.
While modern technology has contributed to the rapid pace at which the market moves, it’s also streamlined many of the things agents do, Roberts Parks says. She’s thankful for this, she continues, because Realtors are in even more demand today than they were when she joined the profession.
“In 1981, fewer people used Realtors than today. Only 82% of buyers used a Realtor, compared to 87% today, and 85% of sellers used a Realtor, compared to 90% today,” she cites. “We’ve heard over the years that Realtors would become the thing of the past, but being a real estate agent has become more of a profession – and the good ones have become more professional.
“We’re required to have more education, we’re held to a high standard of ethics and the ones who really love their clients and treat them right will stay in the business.”
Over the past decade, Roberts Parks has developed a niche assisting U.S. military veterans that has kept her in the business as she reached the age where many people either retire or begin considering it.
During this time, she’s helped hundreds of veterans and veteran families buy or sell a home and has come to love the work more than anything else she does in real estate.
“Working with veterans is a joy. Many are buying their first home, which I love to help them do. Then they call me when they’re ready to move again. They also refer their friends and family to me, which is a big compliment.
“Serving our military families is my small way of giving back to those who give so much to the rest of us.”
Roberts Parks finally returns to interest rates, which concern homebuyers today far more than they did in 1981. Despite their worries, she has reassuring words to share with them.
“People are nervous about the [Federal Reserve Board] ... raising the interest rates, but rates are always changing. In the past 40 years, they’ve went from 18% to 2%, with an overall average of 7.75%, so even with the last jump, we’re still below the average.
“Plus, you’re not stuck with a rate forever. You can always refinance later when it changes.”
Wrapping up her lecture on interest rates brings Roberts Parks to the one thing she says has never changed and she believes never will – the enduring value of homeownership.
“Homeownership has always been one of the best investments the average American can make and will continue to be. When you own a home, you have a place to live while your money grows, a place to belong and be safe, a place to laugh and be yourself, and a place to return to when you’re tired at the end of a bad day.
“A home holds a family together and gives it roots. Owning a home – having a piece of land you can call your own – is one of the bedrocks of our country.”
Homeownership has certainly been an anchor for Roberts Parks. She raised her children, which includes a third daughter she adopted, in a home she owned. Now remarried, she and her second husband own a home where they entertain even more family, including four grandchildren (soon to be five) and a great-grandchild.
This is the home to which Robert Parks and her husband return after trips to ride personal watercraft on distant waters (a pastime she enjoys tremendously) or side-by-sides in the western United States.
And it’s the home from which Roberts Parks continues to watch the real estate world change.
“The market will always change, but people will always need to buy and sell. And they’ll always need a Realtor to help them. They’ll need a hand to hold and someone who understands the stress they feel, who has a kind word for them and who can handle the details as their life changes.
“Buyers and sellers will always need a Realtor because we’re problem solvers. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a fellow Realtor was that I wouldn’t have a job if my clients didn’t have any problems. It changed my whole outlook on the problems in real estate. Solving them is my job!”