Caroline Cook was a stay at home mother with three children (now four) when she decided to venture back into the workforce and become a real estate agent.
The initial stage for this career change was tough. She was pregnant with her fourth child and attempting to sell $4 million worth of property during a down market in 2009.
However, she not only persevered, but thrived.
She still loves what she does and besides somehow managing to raise four children while working full time, she had time to write a book about her ministry involvement in Haiti.
Caroline is an amazing woman and we are excited to have her as today's guest on Small Business War Stories.
Listen to the podcast:
A summary of our interview with Caroline Cook from Worth Properties is below.
You can use the links below to jump to your interests.
- Nashville's been a really exciting market, and I really want to learn a little bit more from you about what it's like to be in real estate. Before we go to that, how did you get into this? Why did you start in the real estate business?
- Is that still the main set of properties you sell?
- Can you explain just a little bit what spec houses are?
- What's the difference between a custom and a spec?
- Tell me a little bit more about the real estate market here in Nashville. First time I came to Nashville, I want to say it was about seven or eight years ago, and it's changing a lot. There's a lot of stuff going on. It's one of the southern economy's engines of growth. That has to affect the real estate market. Tell me, what's that been like?
- How are neighborhoods changing? How is it affecting affordability?
- I'm staying at a house in East Nashville now. It seems like the neighborhood is changing a lot. Can you tell me more about that?
- What else is changing about the city of Nashville?
- What would you say if somebody is new to the Nashville market? What should they think about when looking for a house?
- Do you ever feel like you're too thinly spread?
- What are some of the oddest or wackiest things that you've seen in your line of work?
- Can you tell me of a time when things maybe went sideways and you had a real big challenge that you didn't really exactly know how to solve? How did you go about solving it?
- You mentioned the challenge of cash flows, right? How do you think about that challenge?
- What would you say to somebody who is interested in getting into real estate?
- What do you think is the average for somebody first gets into real estate from the time that they say, "Boom, flag on the ground. I'm going to be a real estate agent" to the first check that they get?
- What would say is the number one piece of advice or thought that you would have for somebody trying to start a small business?
- Can you think of a good story without naming names about somebody who hurt themselves with their words?
- Where can people find you? If anybody wants to find you if they're interested in engaging in real estate here in Nashville, what are your websites?
Nashville's been a really exciting market, and I really want to learn a little bit more from you about what it's like to be in real estate. Before we go to that, how did you get into this? Why did you start in the real estate business?
Caroline Cook: Well, I really didn't want to. My husband is a great builder in town. He was building a bunch of houses and we were working with lots of different real estate agents. There was just kind of a point where it was stupid that one of us was not an agent. I think the deal breaker was one of our agents walked up to my husband and hit him and said, "Hey, thanks for my new Lexus." That was the day Wes came home and said, "I'm not doing this anymore. We got too many kids to be buying people Lexuses."
I was hesitant to get into it because I had been a stay-at-home-mom. At the time, I had three. I don't know; it just seemed daunting to me to get into it. I got my license and then realized I had to join a firm. Then I realized I loved it. I loved being with people, I love homes, and I had a great segue because my husband is a really great, as I said, high-end builder. I immediately had a great group of people that wanted me to help them.
And, you had a natural pipeline of properties, right?
Caroline Cook: Correct.
Is that still the main set of properties you sell?
Caroline Cook: It's not. Back when I got my license, my husband was doing spec houses.
Can you explain just a little bit what spec houses are?
Caroline Cook: Yeah. He would buy a lot, build a big old house. His were usually right under $2 million, so they were big ticket items. A lot of firms were interested in having me join their team. Then, he really only does customs now.
What's the difference between a custom and a spec?
Caroline Cook: Really different. Custom is when someone employs him to build their house. A spec is when it's on my husband's dime and he builds it, and then sells it. That's how he makes money.
Tell me a little bit more about the real estate market here in Nashville. First time I came to Nashville, I want to say it was about seven or eight years ago, and it's changing a lot. There's a lot of stuff going on. It's one of the southern economy's engines of growth. That has to affect the real estate market. Tell me, what's that been like?
Caroline Cook: Oh, it's been great. It's interesting because I got into real estate in 2008, right before the big fall. Nashville really did experience it, a low point. 2009, it was bad. "Really, I can't go anywhere but up" is how I looked at it. When I first got my license, immediately I had about $4 million of personal real estate on the market in a really hard time to sell.
It was a little stressful. I was pregnant with our fourth child. He was very small. I had to explain to the doctor, "I'm under a lot of duress right now trying to sell these houses," and no one was buying anything. It was stressful. We pulled through. Wes is doing great. He's building a ton of houses and I'm still loving it.
How are neighborhoods changing? How is it affecting affordability?
Caroline Cook: Gosh, there are a lot of different pockets in Nashville. With someone saying, "Well how hot's the market?", it just depends on the price range really. There are certain areas, Sylvan Park, it's just hot tamales. I was having lunch with a client last week who bought a house in Sylvan two years ago. Already, she can turn around and make a bunch of money. It's different near my house. We're in Belle Meade area, and it's still great over here. It's just a real different personality for each neighborhood.
I'm staying at a house in East Nashville now. It seems like the neighborhood is changing a lot. Can you tell me more about that?
Caroline Cook: Oh, that's just on fire. Yes. That are is not my forte. This area really is, and I'm real honest with people about that. I'm not a real estate agent that's in the office every day handing out my cards. I do most of my business in line picking up kids in the afternoon, which is a great audience.
It's just who I'm around. Someone comes to me and says, "I'm really interested in East Nashville," I said, "That is awesome, and I'm going to give you somebody's name." Some agents would think, "Oh, you're crazy for doing that," but I can't really sell something well unless I know it well.
What else is changing about the city of Nashville?
Caroline Cook: Well a lot. I'm seeing so many people literally pick up everything, kids, businesses, and move here. I'm working with clients right now from California that, they just were ready for a little bit more of a traditional lifestyle. Nashville's a great place to raise a family.
It's interesting too, I'm from Austin and people love to compare these cities. Oh, I mean I've been hearing it for 20 years, that they're exactly the same. Well, they're not.
They're similar because they both are cities with great souls. They have a lot of personality. They're both music towns. Now those music businesses are very different and they're at the college towns, but hello, Vanderbilt and University of Texas are very different. They're just chock full of coolness. Austin's ahead of Nashville, but I've never seen Nashville mirror Austin more than right now in its trajectory of growth, real estate, business. Nashville's getting cooler.
What would you say if somebody is new to the Nashville market? What should they think about when looking for a house?
Caroline Cook: Save your money. I would just try and get to know it. It's hard when I'm working with people, and I've got a lot of them, that are new to town. You want to help them make a great decision, and where you live, it's a big deal. Of course budget determines so much, but I've got a couple clients who really could spend whatever they want, and that is a great thing but it is also more pressure on me. It's almost like matchmaking.
You're involved in your community a lot. You do a lot of work, and I'd love to learn more about that and understand how that dovetails with your business. Do you ever feel like you're too thinly spread?
Caroline Cook: Oh, I've been too thinly spread my entire life. It just works for me. Maybe some people not so much. I mean, I've got four kids, end of the story. I'm very involved in their schools, I'm very involved with my church. I am very passionate about Haiti. I don't know if I've told you about that.
Tell me more about that…
Caroline Cook: Yeah, I'm involved with a ministry down in Haiti, a special needs orphanage. Actually, wrote a book about it. I don't know if I told you I'm a children's author, but I do that on the side as well. The book is called "My Heart in Haiti" that benefits My Life Speaks, this awesome ministry down there.
I go to Haiti quite a bit. I was there a couple months ago and I'm going back in June. I try and get there once or twice a year. This has been about a three-year journey for me, so it's not like it's been in my life a long time.
Haiti is interesting. I have yet to be in a place with less pretenses. It's nice they do not speak English; most of the people speak Creole, and it forces you to just do a lot of physical contact. To say "hi" to someone, it's a hug.
What are some of the oddest or wackiest things that you've seen in your line of work?
Caroline Cook: Well I just left a house an hour ago that his and her potties facing each other through a clear shower. I just thought, "You know, I actually don't think this is a good idea for marriage. I was insistent that we change that. That didn't work for me. We also find snakes in houses quite a bit. Critter control is my friend.
Can you tell me of a time when things maybe went sideways and you had a real big challenge that you didn't really exactly know how to solve? How did you go about solving it?
Caroline Cook: You mean like the time that I told everyone I quit? Two years ago, I had this huge epiphany and I was ecstatic. "I quit." I was done. I called Shelly Bearden, who I share an office with, and I said, "Okay, you're going to hate me but I'm out. Done. Goodbye. I'm packing up all my stiff." It's a little bit like the mafia; you kind of can't leave. Once you're in, you're in. I think I had gotten to that point. I had some stressful situations. This business is hard because it's not a for-sure paycheck at all. In fact, there are times when you show someone one house and they buy it, and then there's some times when you show someone a house for three years and they never buy anything. There's hours and hours and hours. There's nothing lucrative about that. I was just done at that point, but I decided I loved it and got back in, so I never really quit.
I just needed a break. The nice thing about real estate, you're working for yourself. I really didn't have to quit. I just mentally quit for a couple of months. It might've hurt my business a little bit. I was telling a client, "I'm going to have to do some recourse here. I told everybody I quit." Then they just keep calling, and you just are in a better mood and you say, "Sure. What time do you want to go see it?"
You mentioned the challenge of cash flows, right? Especially when people are starting off in the business, it can be really unpredictable. Sometimes, you can have six months where you're on fire and then six months where nothing happens, and you have to spend your money accordingly and figure out your budget and all of that. How do you think about that challenge?
Caroline Cook: Well, that is a great point. My rule of thumb is, if you're interested in doing it, I wholeheartedly think you should try. If you have to make a certain amount, I don't advise getting into it.
You just have to know going into it you may not see a dollar for a long time. Typically, it can be a great allure for, let's say, a single mom. Someone who just divorced and they've got some kids. They think, "Well, I've heard so-and-so made $100,000 the first year. I'm just going to go get into that." It can be a false perception that that's going to come easily.
What would you say to somebody who is interested in getting into real estate?
Caroline Cook: Gosh, I always want to encourage people to do it because that's what people did for me. You can throw a rock and hit a real estate agent really probably in any town, in any big city. I was nervous. There are some friends of mine who are agents before me who would be annoyed like, "Oh great, you're going to steal all my clients." A good friend of mine gave me wise words and just said, "You know, there's enough business for everybody. If every single on of my best friends did this, there would be enough business." I certainly want to encourage people to get into it. They need to have their expectations that it might not be lucrative at first, and it's a lot of work.
What do you think is the average for somebody first gets into real estate from the time that they say, "Boom, flag on the ground. I'm going to be a real estate agent" to the first check that they get?
Caroline Cook: That's a really hard question. It could be a year before they see a check, easy. It depends on your community. It depends on how many people you've got in the pipeline. A lot of people start because they may have a husband or family members that are coming to town that they just think, "Oh, this is easy money. I get my license so I can help these three people waiting in line." But if you have no experience with it, no ties to it, it could be a long time before you get paid.
What would say is the number one piece of advice or thought that you would have for somebody trying to start a small business?
Caroline Cook: I'm a rule person. As my husband says, "Yes, we know. A little too much of a rule-follower," but rules help me. Probably the number one rule, and I really learned this in real estate and I think it couple be applied to anything, is effort counts. It just does. You don't have to worry about, "Will this really matter in the end?" It will. I don't know exactly how, but effort counts. For me in my industry, it's being there in the flesh for a showing.
The small things matter. Turning lights on and off, it matters. It does. Calling that person back right away. It does matter. That's a helpful rule for me to know. I may not see the fruit of that right away, but I have to just know that's what I operate on.
That's awesome. Any other rules you want to share?
Caroline Cook: Another one is, so "effort counts" and "words matter." I think words, for good or for bad. Professionally speaking, I have seen some trainwrecks because of some careless words. Mainly I'm talking about restraint.
Can you think of a good story without naming names about somebody who hurt themselves with their words?
Caroline Cook: Yeah, I can. No names mentioned. I tell my girls, let's say you're gossiping or something, you have to know that will get back to them so are you comfortable saying it? There was someone that said to one of my clients, "Oh really? You're using her? Does she really do that much? Does she know what she's doing?" Something that kind of cast this cloud of doubt on this client of mine. You know, that's not going to serve her very well. Your words come back to you. They're important, so use them wisely.
What it's like to do business in Nashville? What's your relationship with other small business people? What's your relationship with the government? Do you feel like it's a business-friendly place?
Caroline Cook: Yes. Speaking of Austin, another reason why Austin and Nashville are so different is Nashville is a conservative place. Maybe we're getting less so. We're kind of in transitional mode, but it's a good old boy place. It's got a real southern air, conservative even. Who you know matters. It's a happy spot. My mom always says the minute she touches down, she can just feel the Holy Spirit in the air.
Where can people find you? If anybody wants to find you if they're interested in engaging in real estate here in Nashville, what are your websites?
Caroline Cook: Well, Worth Properties is where I have my license. Great company here in town. You can find me there. You can just pull up "Caroline Cook real estate." Yeah, I'm pretty easy to find if you Google me.
Do you use social media at all to promote your business?
Caroline Cook: Well through Worth, we have a couple of employees that do that, so yes I do. Not as much Instagram I don't. I do that for my books though. I have my Instagram for my books. @BooksByCBC is my Instagram. carolinebridgescook.com is my website where I have all my books for sale. In terms of physical stores, Magpies, Dotted Line, Helen's, Logos, those are all places that sell my books here in town.
If you have any questions or comments about today's episode, please leave them below.