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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 30, 2018

Hard work, detailed plan give flipper a path to success




Realtor Brandi Pearl Thompson is standing on a piece of property on Stringer’s Ridge, taking in a bird’s eye view of downtown Chattanooga. The sweeping vista includes the Tennessee River at her feet and Lookout Mountain to her right.

The air is chilly and dull gray clouds stretch across the sky, so the view isn’t at its best, but it’s still a sight to see. And it’s all hers.

At 35, Thompson has earned this scrubby, undeveloped patch of earth in every sense of the word. From years of hard work, to raising a daughter alone, she fought to be in a position to buy it and won.

But Thompson doesn’t use words like blood, sweat or tears to describe the arduous process of getting there, even though she’d have a right to. Rather, she explains how she uses her know-how in real estate to transform her vision for her life into things she can see and touch – and renovate.

“My daughter is 6 years old and she’s lived in six houses. But that’s part of our strategy,” Thompson says. “We need to move two more times to get to where I want to be financially, and then we probably won’t move again until she’s in high school – although my friends would jokingly say that won’t be possible.”

Thompson has not only been buying and selling the places she calls home on an annual basis, she’s spent the last several years flipping an unbroken stream of houses. And she’s become good at it.

“I bought a house in Red Bank for $64,000 and then put $80,000 into it,” she adds. “Two years later, I sold it for $235,000. After paying the commission, my profit was close to $85,000.”

Thompson’s tidy take was the product of foresight and ample upgrades. Given Red Bank’s spacious yards, growing millennial population and close proximity to downtown Chattanooga, Thompson saw the town was finally coming into its own after decades of sitting in the shadow of the Scenic City.

“My sister says if there’s a way to do something, my brain will figure it out,” Thompson says. “That’s what I enjoy about real estate. I can think through things and forecast what’s going to happen.”

Once Thompson found a house she could work with at a price she liked, she bought it and did extensive renovations. These included an upgraded kitchen – this can make or break a flip, she says – a master bathroom, a walk-in closet, refinished hardwoods, raised ceilings, upgraded electrical and HVAC systems, new plumbing, new appliances, new windows, a new roof, a new water heater and more.

The finished product could have been a candidate for an HGTV episode. “My sister says we take ugly houses and love on them,” Thompson explains.

The meaning of money

Thompson likes turning a profit as much as the next investor, but she looks at money differently than most. While she does see it as a means of acquiring wealth, she says it has a higher purpose as an agent of change.

Thompson’s own back story illustrates what she means. She was not where she wanted to be finally when she left Florida in 2002 after earning a teaching degree. But she’d done her homework on cities in the Southeast, which she chose based on proximity to family, and saw potential in Chattanooga.

“My capital was low, and the capital you needed in most other major cities was higher, so I felt like I could grow in, or with, Chattanooga,” she points out.

To make a living, Thompson purchased a cleaning franchise and went to work. In time, she also bought a house through RE/MAX Properties North (now ERA Blue Key Properties). When the company hired her to clean its office in Hixson, her path through life curved in a new direction.

“When I would clean in the evening, [Realtor] Aaron Shipley would be there working,” Thompson recalls. “Society judges you based on what you do and how you look, but at the time, neither of those things was a big concern for me, so I was often treated as though I was uneducated.

“Aaron didn’t treat me that way, though. Instead, we’d talk about everything from politics to the housing market. They were intellectual conversations. Then I’d go home and study the market, looking for where the good and bad buys were.”

Although Thompson was netting $7,500 a month through her cleaning business, she saw real estate as a more lucrative option and earned her license in 2005. She then joined RE/MAX.

“I wanted to work for someone who’d been in real estate longer than I’d been alive – [owner] Sheila [Shipley, Aaron’s mother],” Thompson says. “It was an easy way of having a mentor without paying for one.”

Thompson learned the ropes of the business while working as a buyer’s agent for the Shipleys. She left RE/MAX in 2011, right before giving birth to her daughter, Vivian. But she adds the timing had nothing to do with the new arrival in her life.

“I’d outgrown their business systems and models and needed to move on,” she acknowledges. “The opportunity for growth had stagnated.”

Thompson landed at Keller Williams Greater Downtown Realty (KW Downtown), which offered the systems and models that enabled her to take her business to the next level. Working mainly on the listing side in Tennessee and Georgia, where she’s licensed, she sold close to $4 million in real estate her first year with the company, and in 2015 and 2016, did close to $20 million per year.

Although Thompson’s sales volume was down slightly in 2017, her team still earned the highest gross commission income and sold more units than any other team at KW Downtown.

Success excites Thompson, but not because low capital is no longer an issue. Rather, the expertise she’s acquired along the way (which includes earning the Certified Residential Specialist designation and her broker’s license) is enabling her to spark the kind of changes she’s experienced in others.

She explains by way of a story.

“I met a young couple through my brother-in-law. Their budget was $85,000, but they didn’t want to live in a dump. They had two kids, so they wanted to live in a nice part of town,” she says.

“This was four years ago, so that was tight. But my mom and I bought a house in Ooltewah for $40,000. I knew I could sell it for $80,000, and we needed to make $20,000, which left us with $20,000 to put into it.”

Thompson told the couple to pick out the renovations, which they had no trouble doing. At closing, the house appraised for $109,000, giving them equity the moment the papers were signed. As the seller, Thompson also covered $5,000 of the closing costs.

Last year, Thompson sold the house for $142,000, netting the couple a $50,000 profit. “That’s life-changing money for someone who makes $30,000 a year.’’

While Thompson turned a profit on the flip, her reward was moving the family forward. “Last year, my daughter asked me if I make the world a better place when I sell a house,” she explains. “Her poppy tells her God says we’re supposed to make the world a better place. And the answer is ‘yes.’ “

Although Thompson won’t help someone foolishly, she has gone above and beyond what was necessary to smooth rough waters. On one occasion, she found a house for an investor to buy for $35,000. After he put $25,000 into it, Thompson sold the house for $85,000. Then things became choppy.

“The buyers complained and complained and complained. They were unhappy about this and unhappy about that. They even thought they’d overpaid for the house,” Thompson remembers. “I don’t want anyone to have a negative experience, so I paid [several thousand dollars] out of my pocket to fix something that wasn’t a problem.”

The buyers sold the house a year later for $125,000. Since then, Thompson has doubled down on paperwork and disclosures. “I don’t want someone taking advantage of my good will, but at the same time, if I can help you, I will. I want someone to like where they live. I’d hate for someone to buy a house from me and resent it after the fact.”

Thompson says real estate is not about making money or selling a house; it’s about helping someone make a decision that can alter their financial tree.

“I can sell you a house. That’s easy. And I’ve never had a problem making money. I can look at a house and see there’s money to be made – that removing a wall, raising its ceilings and giving it a facelift will increase its value,” she says. “I sell real estate because money is a vehicle for changing someone’s future. That’s what I love doing.”

The challenge in real estate, Thompson adds, is getting clients to focus on what they actually need. “When someone is looking for a home, they aren’t thinking about whether or not they’re going to live there for ten years or if this is the last house they’re going to buy.

“They’re thinking about how they need four bedrooms because they have three kids. But, in 10 years, are they going to be able to walk up those stairs, or are they planning to sell the house?’’ she says.

“Everyone has goals. Some people want a house they can pay off quickly so they don’t have a mortgage. Other people don’t have a 401K and want to build passive income so they don’t have to worry about working when they’re older. Real estate is about buying the house that fits your life.”

Clients who don’t think along these lines will – after meeting Thompson. “Most people think two dimensionally,” she says. “I typically think in three or four dimensions. I look at problems differently.”

Single motherhood

If real estate has come easy to Thompson, who could pass for a financial savant, other parts of her life haven’t. But she seems no worse for the wear. If anything, the battles she’s won appear to have fortified – but not hardened – her.

As a single mother with no involvement from the father of her daughter, Thompson alone is responsible for Vivian’s well-being and upbringing. This comes with its daily complications as well as its bigger challenges. But Thompson seems to be handling both with her characteristic tenacity.

As with her career, Thompson has poured a lot of thought into how to raise her daughter, but then breaks that long game down into smaller moments she can easily field. During their day-to-day routine, which includes quality time every evening, situations and questions arise, and she tackles them head on.

Thompson pulls her phone out of her pocket and taps on a series of text messages she and Vivian swapped the previous evening. Thompson had told her daughter they’d be inspecting the work someone had done on a house. Vivian wanted to know why she couldn’t just pay them and be done with it. Their conversation went like this:

Daughter: Why do we have to go look at the house?

Mother: You should always look at someone’s work before you pay them.

Daughter: Why?

Mother: Because you want to make sure they did the work the way you asked them to.

Daughter: What if they didn’t?

Mother: Then you explain it to them again and don’t pay them until they do it right.

Daughter: What if they get mad because you didn’t pay them?

Mother: That’s on them. They shouldn’t have taken the job if they couldn’t do it right.

Daughter: I get it, mom.

“That’s how we do it. She asks questions, we talk about stuff and she cooperates,” Thompson says. “I want her to know why we move when we move, or why we do anything we do. And I want to teach her how to think. Your brain is a muscle; you have to train it. I want her to learn to reason and put things together on her own.”

Some moments are harder than others, but Thompson says she doesn’t believe being a single parent makes children more difficult to handle. Raising a child isn’t easy under any circumstances, she says.

“There are hard parts if you’re married. It’s a relationship, so it’s hard,” she adds. “People ask how I do it. How do I not do it? Is it hard? Hell yes, but I want to raise her into a well-rounded individual who understands the value of hard work and that life isn’t all about her.”

Thompson does have the support of her parents and sister, which not only greases the skids during the daily grind but also affords her a moment to herself if she needs one. And, even with all of her resilience, she sometimes does.

Born to serve

Growing up, Thompson knew she’d either teach or be in business. Teaching came first but didn’t last.

Thompson was born in Goose Creek, South Carolina, but grew up north of Boston, where her father served in the U.S. Navy. At 17, she graduated from high school, moved to Florida and studied to be a teacher. It seemed like the obvious choice.

“Teaching was easy for me. I worked as a teacher’s aide in a private day care when I was 13, I was a substitute teacher in high school and I taught kindergarten, first and second grade at a private school in Florida,” she adds. “But you can do only so much with a child when it’s not reinforced at home.”

Since moving to Chattanooga, Thompson has found a new outlet for her passion for teaching: coaching basketball at the North River YMCA. She’s currently spearheading a team of 5- and 6-year-old boys and girls. “A few of their parents have told me their kids are having fun and that I’m doing a good job,” she says, smiling.

Certain aspects of Thompson’s personality are evident in her real estate work and on display when she coaches. “I tend to be very passionate about things, I make quick judgments – most of which are right – and I like to be in control.’’

When it comes to real estate, Thompson might have a firm grip on the reins, but keeping a group of small kids dribbling in the right direction is an entirely different matter. And unlike taking a moment when she needs one as a mother, there are no time outs for the coach until the buzzer blares.

But just like her kids, she’s having fun, which is is fine – to a point.

Thompson likes to be productive. In addition to her work, parenting and coaching, she’s an active member of Greater Chattanooga Realtors. She’s currently the association’s secretary-treasurer, although her service goes back several years and includes volunteering in many capacities. Thompson became active on a local and state level after being named a top-50 finalist in the National Association of Realtor’s 30 Under 30 event in 2010.

Thompson hopes GCR continues to become more and more involved in the community. “As Realtors, we can set the tone for being good stewards and citizens of this community,” she says. “Real estate is not just about selling houses but being better in the community.”

Thompson also likes to relax - and somehow has time left over to do just that. Activities include CrossFit (which she calls a great stress reliever), hiking (she hiked six miles the day before being interviewed for this story) and hanging out with Vivian (getting manicures and pedicures are a mother-daughter favorite).

Thompson takes a moment to breathe easy while soaking up the view from her perch atop Stringer’s Ridge. Although she works tirelessly to use real estate to help people improve their lives, she doesn’t forget to tend to her dreams, too. But even those aspirations tend to involve the people closest to her.

“I want to build a house for my parents on this property,” she points out. “Someday, I hope to build a house here for me, too, but before that, I want to show my daughter that I do make the world a better place, and so can she.”