Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 13, 2018

Surf and turf: Bickford lives the best of both worlds

Realtor enjoys her dream home while selling others theirs

Charlene Bickford balances life on land – marketing and selling two Pratt Homes developments – and the water, living abord a 56-foot Hatteras motor yacht docked at Island Cove Marina, off Highway 58. Bickford says living on a boat is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. - David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Charlene Bickford, Denny Ford and their dogs, Bixby and Kip, have gathered on the couch in the living room of their home. Bickford, a Realtor, is talking about working for Pratt Home Builders when the room tilts.

After leaning the other way a moment later, the room settles down. Oddly, no one on the couch seemed to notice the slight disturbance.

Perhaps that’s because they long ago became accustomed to the mild sway of their home as the waters of Harrison Bay move beneath it.

Although Bickford is a Realtor, she and Ford don’t own a typical home. There’s no Craftsman architecture above their heads, no two-car garage on the side and no lawn to mow.

Instead, they live, work and play on a 56-foot Hatteras motor yacht. The long, full-bodied beauty, built in 1982 in New Bern, North Carolina, is docked at Island Cove Marina, off Highway 58.

Because Bickford sells houses for a living, people are always asking her why she chooses to live on water instead.

“There’s a lifestyle for everyone,” Bickford explains. “Owning a home is the American Dream. But some people dream differently than others.”

The Ella Ray, as Bickford and Ford dubbed it, might not have a traditional foundation, but it doesn’t lack any of the amenities of a landlocked house. In addition to a living room, dining room and full kitchen, the boat sports three bedrooms and three baths, all of which are below deck.

“We’re not sacrificing anything,” Bickford adds. “Plus, we don’t have to cut grass or pay property taxes.”

Space is a valuable commodity on the Ella Ray but the boat is easily navigated and feels livable. Bickford and Ford certainly think so, especially after living on a 40-foot Silverton until just over two years ago.

“I had to wash my hair in the kitchen sink because I was too tall for the shower,” Bickford laughs. “We had a built-in bed, which was nice, but it was full-size, so my feet hung off the end.”

While Bickford and Ford might be dodging some of the chores and expenses that come with owning a house, the Ella Ray has required a great deal of capital and elbow grease to transform it into a livable, movable space. But Bickford says they’re getting a healthy return on their investment.

“We love being able to cast off the lines and go,” she says. “We’ll take the boat downtown and go out to dinner or do a little pub crawling.”

The couple also likes to entertain friends on Chickamauga Lake. “Our neighbors tell us we’re the most social people on the dock,” Bickford points out. “We love anchoring the boat on the water and spending the night with friends.”

Bickford has to deliberately carve out downtime because her work as a Realtor keeps her busy. As a new-home consultant for Pratt Homes, she’s responsible for marketing and selling two of the builder’s developments: Creekside at Hampton Meadows and The Farm at Hampton Meadows.

With the temperature of the housing market in Chattanooga rivaling the July heat, Bickford is one busy body. Although she works hours onsite during the week (see the sidebar), she often stays long after those hours are over.

“I make myself available when people need me to be,” she says. “There are nights when I’m not home until 11, and I’m always on the phone or the computer. There’s no such thing as a day off.”

Bickford even uses her phone as an internet hotspot when she and Ford are on the lake, away from their Wi-Fi, so she can keep working.

Despite the relentless pace of life as a Realtor in today’s market, Bickford enjoys what she does. “I love the structure of selling a particular development and being an expert on Pratt’s homes.”

Bickford also likes the long-term nature of the relationships she forms with her buyers, whom she must often keep engaged for several months as Pratt builds their home. “I like getting to know them and solving their problems,” she says. “Using my knowledge about new construction to calm their fears and assure them that everything is OK is very satisfying.”

Bickford also feels like she’s helping to carry on the legacy of her late father, who built custom homes in Ft. Lauderdale in the 1950s before becoming one of the nation’s go-to builders of bowling lanes. (Bickford’s father built many of the lanes on which professional tournaments are held, as well as the bowling lanes in the White House.)

Bickford grew up in Marietta, Georgia, and attended classes at Auburn University, where she studied journalism in the hopes of becoming a columnist. Her education was cut short, however, when she returned home following her father’s death to help her mother take over his business.

Despite working hard to keep the company afloat, the business went under. “I grew up around new construction and loved it, but without my dad, the business wasn’t viable,” she recalls. “He was the asset.”

Instead of returning to college, Bickford earned her real estate license and took a job with a commercial developer. When she learned the company was engaged in sketchy behavior, she says, she did an about-face and never looked back.

After spending a few years in sales, Bickford returned to the world of real estate as a buyer’s agent for another Realtor. Eager to make her own way, she left that arrangement and got her first taste of selling new construction for a specific builder when she became the onsite salesperson for an apartment-to-condominium conversion project.

From there, Bickford moved from builder to builder and development to development as the market in Atlanta led. Her last stop before coming to Chattanooga was Lennar Homes.

While working for Lennar, a lifelong dream to live on a boat began to tug at Bickford’s heart. The dream took shape during her teenage visits to Tampa Bay, where she would sit on the balcony of her aunt’s condominium and watch boats entering and leaving the cove.

Bickford bought a motorcycle before she purchased a boat, though. An avid biker, she was riding across the South with friends volunteering with the bike crews at breast cancer walks when she met Ford.

“We would stop traffic and help the walkers cross the intersections in the downtown areas,” she says. “Denny and I met doing that.”

During a trip to Key West, the two learned they were both passionate about boats. While there, Bickford told Ford her dream was to live on boat in Tampa Bay and ride her bike to work.

As the two progressed from friends to “better than friends,” Bickford’s dream became their dream. As their first step toward making that vision a reality, they purchased the Silverton five years ago.

Not long after the boat was theirs, they moved to Chattanooga and docked at Chickamauga Marina to gain access to the Tennessee River.

Bickford continued to work fulltime for Lennar in Atlanta, but it didn’t take long for the daily commute to take its toll on her, and she quickly found herself looking for work in Chattanooga.

When Bickford learned that Pratt brought on Realtors to sell their product exclusively, she dropped off her resume at the main office. Tina Frizzell, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing at the time, took one look at Bickford’s knowledge and experience and was sold.

“It’s been a great fit,” Bickford says.

Although Bickford and Ford are enjoying life in Chattanooga, the Tampa Bay dream persists. Bickford still envisions herself someday dropping anchor on the waters that kiss the city’s shores and staying for good.

But for now and the foreseeable future, Chattanooga is home. “We have a few things to do on the boat before it’s ready to take us that far,” Bickford acknowledges. “And as long as the market is like it is in Chattanooga and we have beautiful product to sell, it would be crazy to walk away.”

Be that as it may, Bickford says the day will come when she and Ford will toss their lines at Island Cove Marina for the last time and head irrevocably south.

“We’re adventurers,” she says. “We can unplug at anytime and go anywhere we want – and still have the comforts of home.”