When it comes to good stories, Realtor Maggie Armstrong is well-stocked.
There’s the one about the time she taught more than 2,000 Santa Clauses how to talk with children while taking their picture with Polaroid’s new instant camera. One of the classes was in Miami, where her Southern dialect didn’t translate well with the Spanish-speaking St. Nicks.
Then there’s the one about Kevin Costner sliding down the banister of her bed and breakfast in Peachtree City, Georgia, during the filming of “The War” in the nineties. She says she never washed the banister again.
Her most poignant story is the one about donating a kidney to a childhood friend who developed renal failure and was placed on a two-year waiting list for a transplant.
“We don’t even have the same taste in men, so who knew our tissues would match perfectly?” Armstrong asks.
Worried that she and her friend would be mixed up with other patients, Armstrong bought tiaras for them to wear into surgery. After the operation, the O.R. nurses placed the tiaras back on the two ladies.
After the experience, Armstrong traveled across Tennessee for the National Kidney Foundation and Donate Life Tennessee spreading the word about how organ donation can save lives.
But the strangest story she tells is the one that begins with, “I would do real estate for free.”
“I would do it for free because I love helping people,” Armstrong explains, her face draped with sincerity.
Armstrong is particularly fond of assisting first-time homebuyers. “They’re gullible and vulnerable. My mothering instincts take over,” she points out. “I want to nurture them but also help them to feel confident.”
Armstrong is also protective of young buyers who want to become investors. Having remodeled several of her own homes, she knows both the peaks and pitfalls of the process and does her best to steer her clients in the right direction.
“Young people watch these flip and flop shows and think they can just march in and do it, but they don’t know how to shore up a foundation, or how a house might seem like a good deal, but then it will cost twice that amount to make it livable.
“I have to let them decide. But it’s like being married to a man – I have to make them think they’re the ones making the decisions.”
Although Armstrong has sold plenty of new construction during her 12 years in real estate, she has a special place in her heart for old homes. From the post-Civil War era bed and breakfast she owned in Peachtree to her 111-year-old home on Missionary Ridge, she seeks them out.
“Old houses have a personality,” she says. “They speak to me.”
When there are no old homes to be found, Armstrong builds one. While living in Minnesota, she and her husband at the time constructed a colonial-style home from the ground up because there were no long-standing houses where they lived.
Armstrong doesn’t just love residing in old houses; she enjoys selling them, too – especially the big ones on Signal Mountain and Missionary Ridge. As such, she can count many of the doctors and lawyers who live in those areas as clients.
Given Armstrong’s familiarity with old homes in Chattanooga, one might assume she’s spent her life in the city. But although she grew up locally, she left after graduating from the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Chattanooga at Tennessee) in 1969 with a degree in psychology and was gone 33 years.
“I swore I’d never come back,” she explains. “It was dirty from all of the industry, and you couldn’t go downtown after dark. I was ready for something different.”
There’s a touch of irony in Armstrong’s voice as she says she “studied psychology but wound up in sales.” Her career took her to Minnesota in 1979, where she worked first for Polaroid as a marketing representative, then as a training representative for an IBM solutions company and, finally, for Apple Computer as a sales and service representative.
Armstrong lost her job with Apple in 1990, was hired back to teach educators and governments and was laid off again in 1994. The second time stuck.
It also stung. “It took me a year to recover from being laid off because I was working 60 hours a week and then, suddenly, I wasn’t needed anymore. That was devastating,” she recalls.
Armstrong eventually grew antsy, partly because she wanted to be productive again but also because she missed the South. After “16 winters” (not years) in Minnesota, she was ready to return to home.
“I told my husband if I’m ever sick, don’t let me die here; put my ass on an airplane and get me home,” she says.
Armstrong knew she was as done with the tech industry, as it was with her. But instead of being discouraged, an idea began to percolate in her mind. While living in Minnesota, Armstrong became known for her big dinners after Sunday church and for offering a harbor to people who were caught in harsh weather. In time, her guests began to joke that she should open a bed and breakfast.
Even though they were kidding, Armstrong did just that. She and her husband moved to Peachtree, bought a home built in 1878 and opened Culpepper House. Armstrong named it after Dr. Culpepper, a physician for the Confederate Army who built the home after returning from the war.
Although Armstrong initially opened Culpepper House as a weekend getaway, Peachtree was a hub for several tech companies, including Sony, Panasonic and TDK. To cater to the businesspeople who traveled through Peachtree, Armstrong began operating during the week, as well.
And since she had some spare time while her guests were at work, she also opened a 42-seat restaurant in her home.
Culpepper House was “a wonderful place” that was rich with community history. “People would come for lunch and tell stories about being born in the house,” Armstrong adds.
The film industry in and around Atlanta was also thriving, with many projects being shot in Peachtree. Consequently, Culpepper House became a popular dining option for visiting cast and crew. “It was nothing out of the ordinary when Patty Duke and Cicely Tyson came in for lunch one day,” she remembers.
Several film projects also used Culpepper House as a location, including “The War” and “A Christmas Memory,” a 1997 TV movie based on a Truman Capote short story.
It was both a magical and an exhausting time. The work consumed Armstrong, who reached the end of her rope after nine years and wound up divorced.
“The burnout time for a bed and breakfast is five to seven years because you’re working 24 hours a day,” Armstrong says. “When my husband and I would fight, we’d have to go outside.”
Fueled by a desire to move even closer to her parents, Armstrong sold Culpepper House in 2002 and returned to the city of her youth, ready to begin a new chapter in her life.
That chapter, Armstrong decided, would include real estate. Flush with cash from the sale of Culpepper House, her plan was to flip houses. But she didn’t want to go in blind, so she took a real estate course at TREES (Tennessee Real Estate Educational Systems) to learn the business.
When Armstrong realized she’d invested $6,000 in a new career, her plan changed and she began working as a real estate agent.
After working for another company for four years, she switched to Keller Williams in 2006 and has remained with the company ever since. Operating out of the Premiere Drive location, the compulsively productive Armstrong works with buyers and sellers in Tennessee and Georgia, is an active member of the company’s local Agent Leadership Council and is preparing to lead a mentoring program for new agents.
“Age is not a factor,” says Armstrong, who’s 69. “I can still run rings around my clients. I’m going to do this until I’m too old for it or people start making fun of me.”
No one would dare tease Armstrong, who’s in the midst of the best year she’s had in real estate.
Armstrong also continues to cater. She began cooking again in 2009, during the downturn in real estate. When the market picked back up again, the part of her that missed cooking big Sunday dinners for family and friends refused to give up the catering.
Armstrong operates her catering business out of – where else? – the 111-year-old Missionary Ridge house she purchased, restored and moved into in 2003.
Much like she honored the man who built Culpepper House by naming the bed and breakfast after him, Armstrong dubbed her new home The Haddock House after the previous owners, who had lived there for 60 years.
Armstrong hosts weddings and runs her catering business out of her beloved home.
But she does not – nor will she ever – operate a bed and breakfast.
“I’ll never clean another toilet as long as I live,” she says, laughing.
As much as Armstrong likes to cook for large groups of people, she says her most cherished moments at this stage in her life are the one-on-one experiences with her clients as she helps them begin what she has done many times – a new chapter in their lives.
“Every job I’ve had led me to a career in real estate and to being a better agent,” Armstrong says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. Being able to help my clients is truly a gift to me.”