Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 13, 2018

The Hamptons to Signal Mountain

Realtor Tombul finds her slice of heaven, helps others find theirs

Not many Realtors get their start in a smoke-filled room in New York City, but this was the unlikely beginning of the career of Desiree Tombul.

Tombul says she was 22, looked 14 and could win over anyone with her smile, which could double as sunshine. She needed all the charm she could muster, too, as she entered the smoky room, which was populated with old men who puffed on cigars and looked like their gruff faces would crack if they tried to change expressions.

Tombul wasn't alone. A friend from the gym – a real estate appraiser – had brought her there and introduced her to the crotchety coterie. Tombul had spent their workout complaining about her job in advertising with an eyewear firm, and he'd suggested she work for him.

"Will I make more money?" she'd asked.

"A lot more," he'd replied.

Never mind that Tombul's experience in real estate was limited to the open houses she attended on Sunday afternoons with her mother; she had that smile, and a college degree to go with it.

The grumpiest of the old men looked her up and down and then huffed, "How old are you?"


"Do you know anything about real estate?"

"I go to open houses with my mom ..."

"You're hired!" the old man cut her off. He then pointed to a two-foot stack of unfinished appraisals and told Tombul's friend to show her the ropes.

Tombul spent the next two weeks shadowing her friend before being pushed from the nest. But because of her age and youthful look, her workout buddy wouldn't send her to any of the questionable parts of town. Instead, he assigned her to jobs on Long Island's North Shore, in the Hamptons and in other well-heeled neighborhoods, where she says she made more money than the old men back at the office – much to their chagrin.

Despite her inexperience, Tombul was a natural at appraising and spent the next several years assessing the value of New York real estate. Before she was done, she could drop enough names to make a mess. Included among the houses she'd appraised were homes belonging to Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, the pasta-making Rozonis and former pop queen Debbie Gibson.

Today, the 55-year-old Tombul is a long way from the Big Apple and her brushes with society's elite. But as the managing broker of the new Signal Mountain office of Real Estate Partners, she says she's more excited about work than ever.

Tombul quickly reveals the reason for her enthusiasm: she "loves, loves, loves" where she lives and works.

"My husband and I have lived in some cool towns, but this one is my favorite," she explains. "Signal Mountain is a sophisticated Mayberry. It's safe, family-oriented and full of natural beauty. Plus, everyone is really nice."

Tombul says the mountain has even grown on her husband, Dr. Selcuk Tombul, a cardiologist with Parkridge Medical Center. When the family moved to Chattanooga 10 years ago, he wanted to live downtown. Now he tells his wife he can feel the stress of work sliding off him with each bend of the road that winds up the mountain.

As a Realtor, Tombul serves many out-of-town clients who want to move to the Chattanooga area. But she doesn't bring them directly to Signal Mountain. Instead, she saves the town for dessert.

"I wait until the end to bring them here or they won't want to look anywhere else," she adds.

As Tombul's clients soak up the small-town atmosphere, the other places they've seen dissolve from their memories, she says. "If you want to walk to Tremont Tavern and eat a hamburger, downtown is a great place to live. But if you want peace and quiet and a nice view, you'll want to be on Signal Mountain."

While people are drawn to the town's charm, many move to Signal Mountain for practical reasons. Tombul has these listed on her mental sales brochure, as well: large lots, reasonable property taxes and highly rated schools are just a few of the amenities attracting young families and retirees alike to the town.

There's just one catch: like Chattanooga and every other surrounding municipalities, Signal Mountain's housing market is suffering from historically low inventory.

Real Estate Partners opened its Signal Mountain office March 1. The dry-erase board to the right of her desk already contains more than 30 names, each a client who's looking for a home in the town. But pickings are slim.

"When I moved here, there were about 180 houses on the market," she recalls. "Now we have between 60 and 70, and anything below $350,000 sells the day it's listed."

This has created a catch-22 for clients who want to sell their home but stay on Signal Mountain: there's nowhere to go.

Tombul deals with this dilemma the only way she knows, through bull-headed tenacity. She'll literally knock on doors until she finds a home for someone.

"I sold a lady's house immediately after listing it. So, we drove around town, and I wrote down the address of every house she liked. Then I either knocked on those doors or sent the owners a letter, and we eventually found her a house."

Her reluctant advice for wary sellers, then, is to take their chances.

"I have clients in Hidden Brook who want to list their house after making some renovations. They've already found another house they like, but they're worried it won't be available when they're ready to buy," she points out. "I told them if that house sells, I'll find them another one."

Tombul is personally familiar with the dilemma her clients are facing, as she and her husband just spent a year looking for a house to buy. She wanted more land to accommodate her many animals – which include two dogs, five cats and a pair of horses – but was coming up empty.

After a year of looking, she started contacting Realtors she knew, told them what she wanted and asked them to let her know if something along those lines appeared on the market. She eventually struck gold and made an offer the same day.

The family moved in this month.

Although Tombul is reaping the rewards of her resolve, these difficulties beg a hard question: why open a new real estate office in a community that's experience a housing squeeze? She proffers an easy answer.

"Even though we're based on Signal Mountain, I list property everywhere. I just placed a house in South Pittsburg under contract," Tombul explains. "You can't sell in one small location. That would be a disservice to you and your customers."

Also, Tombul points out planned developments on Signal Mountain will boost the town's housing inventory in a couple years. But that still doesn't answer the question: why now?

Her reply is equal parts personal and business and is intricately woven into the homespun fabric of Signal Mountain: she wanted to open a real estate office with a strong focus on serving its community.

Upon moving to Signal Mountain a decade ago and earning her real estate license, Tombul began serving the needs of buyers and sellers at the town's Prudential Realty Center office. But, she reached a point where she wanted to do more.

So, when Darlene Brown, founder of Real Estate Partners, called her to chat, Tombul pitched an idea for a real estate office that was just as committed to giving back to the community as it was to selling houses.

As the proprietor of an independently owned and operated firm, Brown didn't have to check with anyone before saying yes and was onboard before the end of the call.

Tombul's vision for Real Estate Partners in Signal Mountain includes attending to people she greatly admires but believes are underappreciated and underserved: police officers, firefighters, nurses, EMS personnel, teachers and military veterans.

Through a national organization called Homes for Heroes, Tombul and her office will soon begin work to not only find homes for these community champions but also strive to make the process more affordable by reducing their commission and hopefully convincing other businesses along the real estate chain, such as mortgage and title companies, to do likewise.

She is also preparing a calendar of service in which her office will treat a different local group – such as a particular police or fire station – to a weekly meal. She also intends to help with any fundraising efforts these groups do.

"Signal Mountain is a wonderfully close-knit town, and many of its people are doing great things for this community," Tombul adds. "I want to have the kind of office that can be a part of that and support it."

Her desire to serve emergency service personnel took root years ago. As a former New Yorker, the events of 9/11 and the cost the men and women of those professions paid that day impacted her in a profound way.

Then, during her years of living in Signal Mountain, the people who respond to local emergencies, such as the police officers who handled the July 16, 2015 terror attack in Chattanooga, and the men and women of the military who still serve overseas, continue to impress her.

In time, Tombul felt compelled to give back and joined Homes for Heroes as its local representative. "I admire these people. They run toward danger when we run away from it," she says, her constant cheerfulness softening. "I couldn't do that, and I'm glad they're willing to do what they do."

Tombul lived many places before coming to Signal Mountain. She started her journey in Long Island, where she lived until she was eight, and was then moved to Florida, where she remained until she graduated from high school.

(When speaking about living in Long Island, she's prone to pulling her old accent out of mothballs, although she now sounds like she's faking it.)

Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and a degree in psychology came next. She also met her husband at Emory, so she spent the first few years after college in New York City, where he attended medical school.

When Selcuk's studies took them to Richmond, Virginia, she continued to appraise houses. She did this until the birth of their second child. After a brief stay in Danville, Kentucky, the Tombuls moved to Vero Beach, Florida.

There, the doctor developed a practice, and the Realtor raised a family that swelled in ranks to include four children. In time, she became disillusioned with the materialistic environment in which their kids were growing up and told her husband she wanted to move.

Selcuk, who'd spent 10 years building his practice, didn't have time to look for a new job, so he told his wife to find him one where she wanted to live. Two weeks later, he had a job interview in Chattanooga.

"When I decide I want something, it happens," Tombul says, her laughter filling her office. "I called the headhunter who had found Selcuk's last job and told him I wanted to be surrounded by nature, enjoy all four seasons and send my kids to good schools."

Coincidentally, the man had spent the previous week in Chattanooga talking with Parkridge, which, also coincidentally, needed a cardiologist. Since she wanted to live in the South, he told her he had just the place for her family.

Tombul wasn't convinced. Her roommate in college had been from Chattanooga and had made it sound terrible. But the headhunter told her the city had become a different place.

When the couple descended on Chattanooga to poke around, Realtor Linda Brock of Prudential was there to greet them and give them the grand tour.

Brock brought the Tombuls to Signal Mountain last, just as Tombul does today. As she soaked up the small-town atmosphere, everything she had previously seen dissolved from her memory, and two months later, she and her family were Signal Mountain's newest residents.

The Tombuls' children were all attending school by that point, so she found herself with time on her hands. To fill those hours, she obtained her license to sell real estate and joined the team at Prudential on Signal Mountain.

During the next 10 years, there were few accolades her name did not touch. During her time with the company, she was often its top listing and selling agent. But more importantly to her, she'd found her passion.

"Every time we were returning from vacation, everyone would be complaining about going back to work, but I couldn't wait to get home and start working again. I love doing this."

Tombul remained with Prudential, which eventually became Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, until last fall. When Brown called her, she heard the voice of opportunity on the other end. "I was ready for my next challenge. I'd done the sales thing for ten years and I was ready to do something new.''

Tombul's new venture doesn't include building a big team or expanding her operations beyond her small space at the cusp of the hill that rises from the foot of the mountain. Rather, she wants to keep things easily manageable.

"We don't want a massive office with dozens of agents," she says. "We want a small number of quality agents who share our philosophy of serving our clients and community with integrity."

Tombul currently has a small starter team in place and is expecting to bring on a handful of additional agents in May. Until then, she'll be working on her calendar of service.

She'll also be thinking about where to put her chickens. Although the Tombuls' new property still isn't large enough for her two horses, who will be staying nearby, there will be room for more of God's creatures.

"I'm an animal freak," she says, unapologetically. "Our animals are as important as everyone else in the family."

As she mentions her family, her eyes move to the photos on her office walls. One features her and her husband; her son Ryan, a Realtor in Nashville; her son Alex, who's working in advertising in Manhattan; her son Brad, who's searching for himself at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; and Gillian, a sophomore at Girls Preparatory School.

Tombul marvels at her influence on Ryan, who has a law degree but decided there wasn't an attorney inside of him, but maybe there was a Realtor who could be happy at work like his mother.

Looking at the evidence on her walls (barring the list of house hunters), one might wonder if Tombul has ever had a bad day. She acknowledges she has, and even relates a story about selling the home of a family who'd lost a 19-year-old son and needed to move on but was forced to return to the house when the deal fell through.

"I went to the house with them as they said goodbye. That was incredibly hard for them," she recalls. "Then they had to come back after moving out. I couldn't stop crying."

She learned to ask for a few days occupancy following a sale (in case something happens), but she couldn't stop becoming attached to her clients, who become like family to her.

"Even a bad day in real estate teaches you something new.''

If Tombul needs to, she can spend a few minutes rubbing shoulders with her favorite celebrity: Donny Osmond, who grins at her from a photo on a shelf to her left. In the picture, she is standing next to Osmond, looking star struck.

A fan since childhood, she'd purchased passage on a cruise on which he would be performing.

On the last evening of the cruise, her traveling companion called out to Osmond as he was setting up for the next show and asked him to take a photo with Tombul.

Blushing, she leaves some of the story untold, including what she said to Osmond during their few moments together. Whatever happened, his face remains there today, providing a time of solace when she needs one. (The Donnie and Marie lunchbox next to the photo has a similar effect, although Tombul says she could do without the drawing of Marie.)

Brown says he is thrilled to have Tombul as the managing broker of the new Signal Mountain office and says she's a perfect fit for the company.

"She's a strong woman, ethical, successful and a person of her word," Brown says. "Her positivity and enthusiasm for her profession, her clients, her community and life in general is contagious and will be a tremendous asset to her agents."

Tombul simply hopes to be a genuine, knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocate for her favorite place on Earth.

"I want to build an office that's an asset to the community and the clients we serve," she explains. "If we do that, I believe we'll be here for years to co