The fun part of being in the luxury market is how you get to meet so many interesting people. And with them are interesting stories to tell. As the absolute queen of Atlanta luxury real estate, Debra Johnston is never short of those. In this episode, she joins Valerie Fitzgerald and Bob Hurwitz to take us into the world of dealing with celebrities and high-profile clients in real estate. From the funniest to the embarrassing, Debra spills some of her crazy encounters in this space. Follow along to this conversation and get a taste of the lives of the rich and famous in luxury real estate.
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Dealing With The Rich And Famous With Debra Johnston, The Queen Of Atlanta’s Luxury Real Estate
In each episode, Bob and I bring you crazy, funny, and interesting stories that take place behind the real estate curtain. Bob, would you do the honors?
We are lucky to have Debra Johnston. She is the absolute queen of Atlanta luxury real estate. She deals with high-level celebrities and the most expensive properties. She is also an old friend of mine, and she is a complete trip. We’re lucky to have her on board with us.
Thanks, Bob. I’m glad to be here coming from the South.
Debra, the idea of the show is that Bob and I used to have lunch, and we would sit and talk. All of a sudden, we would be laughing our heads off because there were so many bizarre, crazy stories about clients, agents, and all kinds of things. We thought, “What a crazy idea would be to be able to chat and have people on and talk about funny things.” It’s much more interesting than finding out how many leads you got this week. We’ve had subjects ranging from, “What’s the craziest thing that has happened to you when meeting with a client?” Go ahead and tell us some of the craziest stories you can think of or funny things that you’ve experienced behind your real estate curtain.
Every day is different. There’s always something that comes up and happens. I feel like I get to meet so many interesting people in the luxury market. I’m dealing with business managers and then the clients. The clients want to buy faster than the business managers. You have to go with the flow and stay cool as a cucumber throughout the whole process.
I was showing this gorgeous lake property. We were there on this lake called Lake Oconee. It’s an $8 million property or something. We were looking and going through the house. Everybody was enjoying it and looking at the views. I go into the kitchen, and I open some more doors. I come out to the pool, and the prospective buyer has taken off his clothes, and he is in the pool. I was thinking, “My clients are watching from somewhere, and then he decided to get in the pool.” I was like, “Now, what are we going to do?”
Is that a celeb or some regular nutcase?
It was a regular, very wealthy entrepreneur that does what he wanted to do.
He decided to test out the pool.
That was fun and crazy.
Debra, I’m curious. Valerie and I were in the center of the celebrity community, as well as dealing with CEOs and people of great affluence. You and I had talked about this a little bit before when you were in town. We met for lunch or whatever it was. How is it different there? We get a lot of crazy people, but you’re also dealing with celebrities. I remember there was some celebrity. The guy was in the backyard. He is a singer, the young guy, Bieber.
That was at one of my properties. It’s interesting because I’ve been in the business for many years. In the beginning, it was pretty much mostly entrepreneurs and business types. It’s pretty conservative. It’s Atlanta, Georgia. Now, with the whole influx of the film industry and we have quite the music industry here as well, everything is starting to change. It’s not necessarily getting crazier. More different situations are happening because the worlds of somebody in the hip-hop industry or on the housewives is very different than just working with business people. It has made it interesting in Buckhead.
You get a little drama mixed with a little bit of conservative stuff. It makes a nice unpredictable day. Crazy things can happen. I was thinking when one time I lived with friends since I was in Malibu. I was on this deck in a beautiful home. The home at that time was about $8 million or $9 million. It’s an area called the Malibu Colony. I’m talking to the owner. It’s windy out there. You’re standing on the deck, and all of a sudden, the wind blew so hard. It blew his toupee off. I looked at it and kept talking like nothing had happened because what were you going to say or do? I certainly wasn’t going to catch it.
This happens. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also humorous. Do you ever have this where one of the clients thinks they are going to be able to autonomously make a decision on buying the house without discussing it with their better half, like wives, girlfriends, or whatever? I had one previous situation. It was funny. It was up on Latigo Canyon and Malibu as well. I had this famous director, an Academy Award winner. He came up with a couple of his buddies to this house. Latigo is a real party house.
To find a house with two masters on the same level is hard. It’s impossible.
Debra, you wouldn’t know, but Valerie, you probably do. Agents call me halfway up there and go, “I can’t show the house. My client is throwing up in the car because it’s a windy road.” It’s a sketchy road. I showed this director, and he goes, “This house is great.” It was a big house with a guest house. It had one whole level. It was a man cave. He goes, “This is going to be my house. We’re going to a party. We’re going to do this.”
I go, “Does your wife need to look at it?” He goes, “Yes, but don’t worry. It’s under control.” I bring her up along with him. It was a few days later. She was looking at it, and he was going, “What do you think?” I go, “This is a great house.” She goes, “You’re ain’t buying shit.” I looked at him. He looked at me, Mr. Big Shot Academy Winner, and that was the end of it. I wonder if you guys ever run into that where one person thinks they can make the decision when in actuality, they can’t.
It happens all the time, the whole timing of it. If one person looks and the other one isn’t with them, and then they come back to look, you watch this dynamic of how both sides have to come to an agreement. If one makes the decision sooner or assumes something, I know we’re going to be starting all over again.
Have you had an embarrassing situation like that where it was a weird power struggle?
One time because one spouse didn’t want to move over to the other side of Buckhead, and one really did. It was a big decision because they wanted to buy something and then renovate it. We all went out together, and then the kids started getting sick. The wife wanted to take the kids and go. She was like, “You guys go look at a couple of places.” I knew she didn’t want to move on that side of town.
We started looking, and he was like, “Debra, if you were going to buy anything on the side of town, what would you buy?” I said, “I’ll show it to you.” I showed it to him. He flipped out over it, and then I was thinking to myself, “She is not going to buy into this, and she is not here.” He goes home all excited, “I found it.” I got the call the next day, “What are you doing?” We started all over. I had to show her everything. That was not exactly what this property was, and she had to come to a conclusion herself. It ended up working out. They love it, but it was that weird dynamic.
This happened a couple of times, but particularly in this one couple. Do you remember the whole thing about snoring rooms? Do you ever hear that, Debra? It’s a snoring room.
I haven’t heard that term. They always say, “Is there a second master around here?”
Bob, you’ve heard snoring rooms, right?
Not so. Just now.
There have been so many houses I’ve been in where they’ve had a little anteroom off the master, which normally would be another sitting room or maybe a big walk-in closet for the woman. They had another bed in there. It would be a snoring room. I had this couple, and we would look at houses. They would argue about which house was right, but she had to have a snoring room. She had to have a room that he could go to in the middle of the night to snore, which would not be next to her in the same room. We went round and round at some beautiful homes, but the snoring room was standing in the way of the decision.
Why didn’t she just start him in the snoring room instead of waiting until he woke her up?
What they wanted to buy was a $12 million or $15 million house at that time. She would not buy a house unless it had a room that was a snoring room, not one that you are down the hall like another bedroom like for a 3 or 4 up. They wanted a room that had pocket doors or sliding doors where he could get up out of bed, go into the snoring room, close the door, sleep, and snore. They exist all over town. Those snoring rooms are all over town.
I haven’t heard snoring rooms either, but it comes up like, “Is there another bedroom?” To find a house with two masters on the same level is hard. It’s impossible. It’s usually a master and then another bedroom. Eventually, it comes out. They start talking about water closets and how many are there. Now, you got to have two of everything.
It’s a totally different mindset. I was talking to a client of mine. We were laughing because I had this client that was complaining that the suite was too small. His daughter was eleven or something. It was huge. I was telling this client, “When I grew up, it was me, my brother, and sister sharing one room in an apartment.” Nowadays, a 1,200 square foot suite for an eleven-year-old kid is required for a lot of these people. It’s a different level of living.
Sometimes I’ll walk you through a house. I’ll say, “This bedroom is for your favorite child,” because it’s the biggest one. Debra, what’s the funniest thing that has happened during, let’s say, a meeting with a client? Is there something crazy that has happened when you’ve gone to have a meeting with someone?
The parts that get funnier is when clients get emotional, and we have to stay calm as a cucumber and let them say whatever they’re going to say. I had one situation. I had a sale and wonderful couple that owns this property on 446 acres. They had been there for twenty years. I had to tell them that we had a buyer who wanted to buy the property, and they wanted to close in less than three weeks. They had had a few drinks. My hair was missing off my eyebrows.
He called me everything, and he was like, “There’s no way we’re not going to do this for $15.5 million.” I waited until he finished, and I was like, “I’ll call you in the morning.” You have to roll through it. The next day I called, and he was a totally different person. I was like, “Can we do this in three weeks?” Situations come up like that where the client will say crazy stuff, and you have to roll with it. It’s not personal, but it happens.
I had one, and I was thinking about it. We have an area called The Bird Streets here. It’s very popular with young movie stars. Probably, the average age range up there is 25 to 55. It’s young, hip views, modern, and happening. I had an older producer. Every time I would go to meet with him at the house, I had to go into his bathroom. He had a big bathroom. He had his desk in the middle of the bathroom.
He was always in a bathrobe, and he didn’t have anything under the bathrobe. Occasionally, we would be talking. He would get up to swing around to get his cigarette, and the robe would fall. I did get a bathroom with a man in a bathrobe talking about a gazillion-dollar house, which we eventually sold to a major movie star.
Some of these people march to their drummers because they’re used to everybody going along with it. What I find sometimes is funny is when you have a client, and I’m sure you guys probably run into this. I’ve run into it fairly often over the many years I’ve been doing this. I had this one guy who owned a rap business. We were on escrow on something. Ironically, he was ultimately arrested in the house years later.
It was a bankruptcy, and he had to put a $500,000 hard to get the deal. It was a very fast deal. It was two weeks. It came time to close, and he didn’t have the rest of the money. I go, “Where’s the rest of the money?” He bought a bunch of cars and stuff. I said, “I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but you’re going to lose your $500,000. You got to figure out how to get this money.” This was not a guy you wanted to say anything bad to. He goes, “What am I going to do?” I go, “I don’t know, but you got to figure out some ways.”
Ultimately, he did. He sold some of the song catalog or whatever it was. He was able to close. Years later, he was arrested in the house. Have you guys had that with that situation? Usually, the fake people, which Valerie, you, and I have already talked about it at length, won’t come up with their initial money. When someone comes up with their money but can’t come up with the rest of it and their money has already gone hard, that’s a tough situation. I’m wondering if either of you has ever had to deal with that.
I’ve only had it happen to me once with a car dealer, but then he was able to creatively figure it out so that he was able to close. Three days before closing, I’m starting to hear about, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to close this deal.” I was like, “You have to close this deal.” He eventually did, but that was about the only time.
Did he sell a bunch of cars or something?
I don’t know what he did. I’m not sure. He figured out another way to get some money to make it happen.
Valerie, what about you?
I’ve had people not close, definitely.
When clients get emotional, we have to stay calm as a cucumber and let them say whatever they’re going to say.
When they come at the end, they go, “I don’t have the money,” even though most of their money is already in.
I’ve had that with a few foreign clients, especially when the Russians were big-time buying in our community at that time, moving money over. It has gotten a lot harder now to move money anyway because of Homeland Security. You know the saying, “If it’s not already here, it’s usually not going to come.” It gets scary because you can’t push some of these characters. “What do you mean I have to close in three days? Get me an extension. You work it out.” I have to work it out, that kind of thing.
Typically, what I’ve done is gone back and gotten an extension on the close. Eventually, they get hard money. They have to borrow some hard money in order to close it. We have to work that out too, “Here’s your hard money. Here’s your extension.” People don’t realize behind our real estate curtain the lengths that we have to go to keep everything together, make sales happen, and keep people moving forward.
Legally, we’ve earned our commission when we brought the buyer ready, willing, and able to the table. What happens during the escrow or if there’s not an escrow in certain states, we have to constantly be managing things that come up, and some of them are so off the wall. It’s like Debra said. You have to let the person say what they got to say, even though you know it’s ridiculous. Let them get it off their chest, and then reality sets in. It’s like what Debra said, “Does this guy still want to sell his house for $15.5 million? If he does, then he is going to have to figure out this problem within 21 days.”
We brought in all the organizers. It was a whole team of people to get him out of the house. It worked, but he lost his mind for a little bit.
Debra, when you work with sportspeople, I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of sportspeople. Do they want something specific, like super high ceilings or a massive family room for a big theater? Are there certain things that they look for that suit their particular sport that they’re looking for when they’re buying a home?
Yes. If it’s athletes, that’s one big category. They want all of that. They want high ceilings. Everybody wants privacy. They want the right-scale gym, pool, and plenty of walkout lawn space. It seems like now in over the five million market here is that people want turnkey-ready. If it’s being built, they don’t want to help finish it by selecting finishes. They just want it done. The easier, the better, and including furniture, it’s more common out there to sell houses completely furnished, right?
Not really because at the very high end, the 30, 40, 50-day, they have furniture made for those houses. The rest of them are staged. You can either buy from the stager or the furniture. Don’t you think, Bob, on the high end they come furnished?
That’s true because a lot of the furniture is custom and has its inherent value. Especially with the foreign buyers, they want to come turnkey and literally want anything. What’s funny is Debra, Valerie, and I, we’re on a deal together where she had the buyer. Ultimately, it didn’t work out. It’s a $9 million-plus property. There was staged furniture. He was haggling over that furniture like, “This one should only be $20,000.” I was like, “I’m not going to sit there and negotiate furniture.”
Valerie, I’m sure you probably had the same experience. I always try to separate the two things unless it’s obvious where it’s just part of the property because it’s like, “Let’s negotiate the sale of the house, and then you guys can discuss the furniture.” People will blow a $20 million or $30 million deal over everything from wine to a couch to whatever because you struck any egos involved.
I went through a deal like that. I was like, “Can we separate the furniture?” They were arguing over a couch, and it was a $10 million deal. You got to remember, in Atlanta, $10 million is huge. That’s pretty much our top end. The one that I sold for $15 million was in Gainesville, which is an hour north. It was because there was so much property with the house.
For the most part, we’re talking between $5 million and $10 million max. You could have a house that has been around with furniture from the ’90s to something that’s well redone and complete. When it’s like that, people start saying, “I want all the furniture with it.” I was like, “We want to do that separately.” “No, I want all the furniture, art, and rugs.” We get into this whole thing. It’s crazy.
We’ve had a few stories where we’ve walked in on people having sex with someone. I may not be there. They’re with someone. We’re peeking inside people’s lives all the time. I’m sure that you’ve come across your fair share of those embarrassing uh-oh moments.
I haven’t had that happen.
It’s boring in Atlanta.
I’m totally missing out here. Maybe once in a while, some stuff is left out that’s a little questionable, but I haven’t had that happen. What am I missing, Bob?
It can be weird. We do get a lot of strange stuff out of here, but it’s probably more normal there in terms of the people you deal with. I know you deal with celebs and athletes, so you must have some weird stuff.
The rappers and housewives, those guys are a riot. It can be pretty interesting.
Debra, both Bob and I are thrilled you could join us and share your real estate stories and experience, selling all these high-end homes in Atlanta.
I’m your girl in the South.
Thank you for taking the time from your busy career to spend this time with us.
Debra, it was great having you on. I’ve known Debra for a long time. She is absolutely stellar. Although it’s not as weird interactions as we have here, there are still some good stories to tell. I appreciate it.
I appreciate it. You’re the best.
Thanks so much for joining us. I look forward to seeing you in person. Take care.
I’ve enjoyed Debra, Bob. She is sharp and fun.
Debra is amazing. She is absolutely the top agent in Atlanta, but also a great person, great personality, super funny, and mixing up a nice lifestyle and a lot of humor along with all the business she does. It’s a real pleasure to have her as part of the show.
If you enjoy our show, go on Apple and give us a review or share on social media. We’d love to hear from you. Come back to our show next time for more stories behind the real estate curtain right here on Real Estate, Real Laughs.
See you next time.
About Debra Johnston
Debra is the #1 Individual Agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Luxury Collection in Buckhead and one of the most sought-after luxury real estate agents in Atlanta. Her extensive clientele network includes relationships with entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 executives and celebrities in the entertainment and film industry. With a love of architecture and a passion for design, real estate comes naturally to Debra. “I specialize in superb marketing to best represent each client’s property.
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