Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 21, 2022

Turns out, it wasn’t just money

Clay finds reward he wasn’t seeking in his new career

Michael Clay is a Realtor with the downtown office of Crye-Leike. He says he became an agent for the financial benefits but has also found satisfaction in helping clients achieve their goals. - Photo courtesy of Michael Clay

When someone asks Michael Clay why he became a Realtor, he replies with a quick and straightforward answer: “Money.”

Clay, 47, doesn’t dress up his answer with a profession of love for the American dream or helping people. He says, matter-of-factly, that the financial rewards of representing clients in real estate transactions gets him out of bed in the morning.

In other words, like most people, Clay works to be paid.

This is the life Clay has known since he came home after being booted out of Brainerd High School and his father offered him a job cleaning construction sites.

“I wasn’t a bad kid. I was smart. But it was always something,” Clay recalls. “When I went home, my dad said, ‘Want to work for me?’”

Clay describes his father, Richard Clay, as a self-made man who taught him the value of hard work as they traveled across the country cleaning commercial construction projects and remodels before the owners or tenants moved in.

When work waned in 2007 during the Great Recession, Clay took a page from his father’s playbook and shifted to a venture of his own.

“We used to have a schedule of jobs. We knew what we’d be doing a year from any date. But it got to the point where we didn’t know what we’d be doing next and neither did the contractors,” Clay recalls. “One day, I went to get an estimate from some guys who were tiling floors, and as I listened to them talk, I thought, ‘These guys are clueless. Surely I could lay tile.”

Clay tested his theory on his own home first and says he was pleased with the results.

“I looked at pictures and used all the wrong tools, but I got it done. And when people would come to my home and ask me who laid the tile, they couldn’t believe I did it. I knew where the flaws were, but they couldn’t see them. So I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this for a living.’”

Clay emailed before and after photos of his work to his friends, who in turn forwarded them to their contacts. One of the recipients offered Clay a job installing the tile in 30 homes.

“That was my schooling,” says Clay. “And I went on to do it for 17 years.”

Clay did more than lay tile during those years. Claiming to have a natural ability for being handy, he says he learned to do whatever a customer needed and eventually expanded his skill set to the point of being able to handle any remodeling task.

By 2019, however, Clay wanted to put his renovation days behind him, so he obtained his real estate license – unaware, as most people were, that the coronavirus was about to turn the world upside down.

“I chose real estate because, just like construction work, if I had a bad couple of months, I knew one job could pull me out of the hole,” Clay explains.

Although money motivated Clay to become a Realtor, he says he quickly discovered how gratifying the work can be.

“I sold my first house to a friend of mine,” he says. “She didn’t think she could buy a house, but I said, ‘Why don’t you try?’ And she’s in love with it.”

Clay, who earned a GED while working with his father, says he’s also enjoyed learning the rules and regulations of real estate, as well as meeting and talking with new people.

The only part of real estate that’s been difficult for him, he adds, has been schooling buyers on the harsh realities of the current housing market.

“Explaining to young people that $240,000 doesn’t buy as much house as it did 10 years ago ain’t easy,” he says. “I’ll take them to look at a house, and they’ll say, ‘Is that all I can afford?” I’ve had a few sales fall through because of that.”

To keep busy, Clay is still doing the occasional remodel. He says he worked every day for a year after the emergence of the coronavirus as housebound homeowners hired him to renovate their spaces, but he wants to put the work behind him so he can focus on other projects.

These include a convenience store on Cherokee Boulevard he purchased during the pandemic and a hookah lounge he’s opening on East 11th Street.

Clay’s plans also include growing his real estate business, which he’s currently running out of the downtown Crye-Leike office.

“I just hired a guy to do lead generation,” he says. “I don’t have the time to do any marketing, so he’s going to take care of that for me.”

Ever since learning the value of a hard-earned dollar while working for his father, Clay has preferred staying busy to leisure time. Even now, he confesses to always having his nose to the proverbial grindstone.

“Sometimes I’ll take a cup of coffee and a newspaper to the park, where it’s quiet, but I don’t have many of those moments. I don’t even watch TV. I want to become successful. That’s what excites me.

“And I want to be good at what I do so people will remember me when they’re ready to move again.”

Clay isn’t married but he does have three children. He says his son, a 19-year-old student at Chattanooga State Community College, is considering becoming a Realtor.

Perhaps the young man found inspiration in his father, a self-made man who taught him the value of hard work.