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Front Page - Friday, November 17, 2017

Crye-Leike's Darnes turns financial fall into success

Darnes - Photograph by David Laprad

Crye-Leike affiliate broker Donna Darnes has a saying she likes to remember when she encounters an obstacle: “The difference between try and triumph is a little umph.”

Scribbled in ink on a Post-it note and affixed to a mirror next to her desk in her Ooltewah office, the quote is attributed to Marvin Phillips. “I don’t know who he is but I like what he said,” Darnes says.

A casual observer might think the whimsical aphorism offers Darnes the inspiration she needs to muscle through a rough day at work. But this is no trite saying to the 54-year-old Realtor; it’s a guiding principle that has helped her turn what could have been devastating circumstances into personal and professional victories.

One such episode was both a personal and professional setback: when Darnes lost her house during the Great Recession. While she wasn’t alone in suffering the stigma of foreclosure, she felt especially embarrassed because of her profession.

“Going into foreclosure was humiliating because I’m a Realtor,” Darnes acknowledges. “I lost more than my house and SUV; I lost my pride.”

Darnes says those years were the worst she’s experienced. But during that time, she found the Phillips quote, and it inspired her to give her circumstances “a little umph.”

“I knew I’d bounce back and be successful; so, I kept smiling and stayed positive,” Darnes adds.

Darnes also worked hard. Really hard. As she recovered from her losses and rebuilt her personal infrastructure, she put her nose to the grindstone and left it there. At one point, her business cards sported the motto, “Your 24/7 Realtor.”

“A client once texted me at 2 in the morning,” Darnes adds. “When I replied immediately, he told me to get some sleep.”

Darnes’ efforts paid off. In addition to Crye-Leike honoring her for outstanding sales by making her a lifetime member of the company’s Multi-Million Dollar Club, her achievements in residential real estate helped her to obtain the Certified Residential Specialist designation – a title held by only 29,000 of the 1.2 million Realtors in the U.S., according to the National Association of Realtors.

Her broker, Dan Griess, says he wishes more of his agents worked as hard as Darnes. “Donna has a heck of a work ethic. If she’s not in her office, I know she’s out there getting things done.”

As a Realtor, Darnes is defined by more than a willingness to work hard; she’s also known for her savvy marketing. This is evident in the details she pours into her listing remarks on the multiple listing services operated by the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors and the River Counties Association of Realtors in Cleveland, Tennessee.

“Every property is unique – and I try reflect that in the listing remarks,” she points out. “I have a client with a house, a cottage, an RV pad and other neat things on his property. I didn’t just put that he has a three-bedroom, two-bath house; I listed all the special things, too. You can never know what someone might be looking for.”

Darnes is also known for being direct with her clients. Or, as she puts it, “brutally honest.”

“I believe in telling a client what his home is worth. I don’t believe in inflating the price to win someone over or give them false hope,” Darnes says. “I’ve lost listings because of that. But I want my clients to trust me.”

Darnes’ insistence on integrity has paid off: most of her business comes from referrals and repeat customers.

Following in the footsteps of honesty is persistence, which Darnes exhibits through her negotiating skills and salesmanship. When a couple recently asked her to find them a rental, she asked, “Why not buy?” The pair said they didn’t want to purchase a home because Realtors had burned them in the past. Darnes told them they would be spending $1,500 on rent instead of $1,000 on house payments, showed them a few properties and had them under contract in less than a week.

“They’re thrilled,” Darnes adds. “That experience changed the way they look at Realtors. Every profession has its good and bad apples – and I never want to leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth.”

Darnes also prides herself in being her clients’ right hand. This is evident in the way she’s ready to answer any question and tackle any issue – day or night. “My phone never leaves my side,” she says.

It can also be seen in her unique value-added service: removing the clutter from her clients’ houses – and minds.

“I help clients sell their unwanted things before they move. Many of them don’t have the time, ability or know-how to do that, so I do it free of charge, without taking a cut,” Darnes explains. “They appreciate me taking that stress off of them. I sold over $5,000 worth of stuff for one client.”

Finally, Barnes is known for lending an empathetic ear to her clients. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve lost a house, I’ve worried about having enough money for a down payment and I’ve sold one house while buying another one,” she says. “So, I tell my clients, ‘If you can’t sleep because something is weighing heavy on your mind – call me. I’m here for you.’”

Although Darnes has been a Realtor for 12 years, she’s wanted to sell real estate since her late teens. She didn’t have the confidence for it at that time, though, so she entered the legal profession instead. She started out as a skip tracer in Idaho, where she grew up, then became a legal secretary. After moving back to Tennessee, where she was born, she earned an associate’s degree at Cleveland State Community College and became a paralegal.

After 20 years in the legal profession, Darnes decided to pursue her first choice of career. “I thought Realtors made a lot of money, went on vacation all the time and made their own schedule,” she recalls. “Boy, was I wrong.”

Darnes kept her job as a paralegal for nine months while she met with real estate clients and did cold calls during the evenings. Eventually, she was doing well enough to quit her day job and became a full-time Realtor.

Darnes has never looked back or stopped pressing forward. In addition to earning her CRS designation through a combination of professional achievements and class work, she’s obtained the LeadingRE Relocation Specialist, At Home with Diversity and e-PRO certifications. She also supports her profession by being an active member of GCAR, where she serves on the Professional Standards Committee, and RCAR. Darnes is licensed in Tennessee and Georgia and serves buyers and sellers in and around Hamilton County.

Real estate is more than a means of making a living to Darnes, though. It has provided her with her immediate family.

“I went with another company when I started out in real estate. When I moved to Crye-Leike in 2007, I looked at it as just another company, albeit one that would be better for my clients and me,” she says. “But now all of these people are my family. This office is closely knit; we love and support each other. We all bleed red.”

Darnes’ clients have become family as well. She points to a stack of a half-dozen greeting cards on her desk, each of which contains a hand-written message from her. “These are my happy house anniversary cards,” she says, smiling. “I love my clients. I know everyone says this, but my clients are amazing. They truly are the best in the world.”

The relationships Darnes has forged through her work have helped to fill a void that exists because of her commitment to her profession: she has no significant other. Darnes married in her mid-twenties but left that relationship before her son was born and has been single ever since. Although she’s dated, finding someone with staying power hasn’t been easy.

“It’s hard to date when you do what I do for a living. Men get jealous of your phone and male clients, and wonder why you’re leaving to show someone a property at eight o’clock at night,” she explains. “Because of my profession, I need a man who’s either an equally hard worker and understands why I put in so many hours or someone who’s compassionate and will stay by my side no matter what.”

Darnes is grateful that her mother, Fay, and 28-year-old son, Brandon, are within arm’s reach. Her mother and stepfather, John, live with her in her home in Harrison. She convinced them to move in with her two years ago so she could help her mother take care of her stepfather, who has Alzheimer’s disease. (Darnes affectionately calls her stepfather “John-John.”)

“That’s been stressful because we’re both strong-willed women, but we’ve survived,” Darnes says.

Darnes’ son lives nearby as well – in a cabin on the same plot of land on which she lives. Their relationship has also had its ups and downs because of Darnes’ work. “He says I’m always working. But he also realizes he’s had food on his table and a roof over his head – and he knows what that takes,” she says. “So, while he’s had some difficulty with my work, he’s also thanked me for it.”

Seated at her desk at Crye-Leike, Darnes has progressed from talking stoically about her work to warming up as she discusses her clients and family. But one question, inspired by the curly sticky note on her mirror, catches herdl     off guard: What is your greatest triumph?

She lowers her head. Several seconds later, she tries to speak but has trouble getting the words past the threat of tears. Eventually, she pulls one sentence through the looming cloudburst: “Making it this far as a single mother,” she says, her eyes glistening. “It wasn’t easy. My son is strong-headed like his momma, but he’s a good kid.”

Darnes wipes her tears and shifts her thoughts to a lighter topic. With winter moving in, she’ll have to put her favorite activity – yardsaling – on the shelf until spring. This is her “me time,” when she focuses on herself and what makes her happy. “I feel like a kid in a candy store when I find the one item that makes me giddy,” she says.

Many of those unearthed artifacts end up at her booth at Gateway Antiques Mall on Cloud Springs Road. Although a few months of slim pickings lie ahead for Chattanooga’s “Realtor picker,” she’s stocked her space with plenty of items for the months ahead. Even though the booth represents more work, Darnes refers to it as her hobby.

Her phone stays with her, though, and she’s only a call or a text away from slipping into work mode. Her dedication and responsiveness make her one of Crye-Leike’s treasures, Griess says.

“We all face challenges in our lives and careers, and Donna has persevered through more than her share,” he says. “She’s an excellent example of what a person and a Realtor should be.”