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Debra Johnston on Atlanta’s Changing Face of Luxury


Trend Talk

Debra Johnston is the queen of Atlanta luxury real estate. Affectionately called “The Hammer” by her peers and dripping with charisma, the 5’ 3” Southern spitfire regularly lists the city’s best trophy properties — like the nearly $10 million Sterling Hall on more than an acre. Her list of sold properties is even more impressive: a record-breaking $15,500,000 estate in Gainesville on 446 acres and video featured by Architectural Digest, a rare and highly-desired mid-century modern home in Buckhead that she’s sold twice, and a resort-style estate at Ritz-Carlton| Reynolds Lake Oconee that sold for $8,700,000 in four months, holding the highest recorded sale at Lake Oconee.

Unquestionably, Johnston has hit a new apex in her career. The 18-year real estate veteran was named to elite Variety’s 2021 Showbiz Real Estate Elite Report. She also closed over $70 million in real estate sales in 2021 — with over $33 million in September alone, her all-time best.

Atlanta has also been on an unprecedented ride the last two years. The price threshold to enter the city’s in-town luxury real estate market hit $1 million, while the median luxury price is closer to $3.5 million. A bevy of affluent out-of-state buyers, armed with cash and a slightly edgier style, are flooding into its toniest communities like Buckhead and Chastain Park. “Atlanta is being dubbed the Hollywood of the South,” she says, referring to the film industry’s entrée into Georgia around 2012 and growing prominence. “My clients range from industry types, sports, entrepreneurs and everything in between.” The recent evolution of Atlanta as a global destination has been so dramatic that she foresees the next iteration of the luxury Atlanta buyer as not just being from Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, but from out of the country investing in Atlanta.

It’s for that reason that she recently made the leap from the Buckhead office of her former brokerage — where she was the No. 1 individual agent for six years in a row — to the Coldwell Banker Global Luxury® network. “My vision was to go next level and expand my reach nationally and internationally in terms of my contacts and referral network. Coldwell Banker is superior in that aspect,” she says.

Curious about where the Atlanta luxury housing landscape was headed in 2022, we connected with Johnston for “TrendTalk” to get her unfiltered view.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Before we get into what’s happening in the market, can you tell us one thing about yourself that people might not know?

Debra Johnston I had a lucky situation happen and landed a role in the 2020 film “Like A Boss” with Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek and Rose Byrne. It was an incredible experience and hard work!

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How did you get your start in real estate?

Debra Johnston Growing up in northern Michigan and then after attending college, I thought that the way to succeed was corporate America. I took a job in NYC and moved around quite a bit, eventually landing in Atlanta. I worked for Coca-Cola in corporate marketing for years. Marketing and branding is my specialty and works really well with real estate. I have always wanted to have my own business and have a passion for architecture and design, so I thought I could make the transition to real estate and took a leap of faith. It has paid off and I love what I do for others.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Let’s get into the market. Where does the price threshold for luxury in Atlanta currently sit?

Debra Johnston I would say the barrier to entry is about $1 million+ right now in Buckhead. Typically, there are four luxury buyer brackets in Atlanta: $1-3 million, $3-5 million, $5-7 million and trophy properties over $8 million.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury The prevailing real estate story from 2021 seems to be “high demand, limited supply.” Is it true for Atlanta as well?

Debra Johnston We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity and movement in all price points. In the $1 million+ sector, if the property is in desirable condition and a great location, it could be off the market in less than five days. We have extremely limited inventory, less than a month’s supply right now and a greater number of buyers who are moving here and looking at our city. We are also seeing multiple offers. Recently there was a property listed for $1.9 million that I saw on social media. The agent showed it about 12 to 15 times, and there were three offers over asking. In the higher price points between $3 million and $4 million, it really comes down to how fresh the house feels. Is it move-in ready? Does it have a pool? Is it private? If it checks those boxes, there are going to be multiple offers. Another new trend is that older inventory that was previously passed over is getting attention from builders that are reimagining them and flipping. They usually have a lot of potential with larger lots in great locations.

Sterling Hall | 1001 West Paces Ferry Road | $9,499,000

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How concerned are you that low inventory will worsen in 2022?

Debra Johnston I am concerned. With less than a month’s inventory and the influx of new buyers, we need sellers to list their properties to support the demand. A recent statistic just came out that 40% of homeowners want to sell looking for larger spaces. Now is the time to list!

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Is there anything you’re doing to get more listings?

Debra Johnston I’m super excited and relaunching my brand now that I’ve fully transitioned under Coldwell Banker Global Luxury. I am continuously looking for new opportunities to list by reaching out to my network, marketing and PR.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What types of luxury properties are most in-demand right now?

Debra Johnston In terms of home types, the architecture needs to be fresh and transitional. Buyers are trending towards a mix of great design with clean lines, classic more modern architecture. As you can imagine, the indoor/outdoor lifestyle with a pool is highly sought-after.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What price ranges tend to be the hottest?

Debra Johnston I would say the sweet spot for luxury in Atlanta is $3 to $3.7 million though the luxury new construction properties are in the $6 million range.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What about the hottest neighborhoods?

Debra Johnston The most in-demand luxury neighborhoods are Buckhead, Tuxedo Park and Chastain Park right now.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Who is the typical Atlanta luxury buyer right now?

Debra Johnston It’s been atypical this year because we have so many out-of-state buyers coming from New York, California, Chicago and Florida. Those luxury buyers may be in the entertainment or music industry, or professional athletes. Atlanta also attracts entrepreneurs, and they’re bringing their businesses here. Of course, we have locals too, who want to upgrade or get more square footage because they’re spending more time at home and need more living spaces.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury For those moving to Atlanta from other areas, what’s been the main attraction?

Debra Johnston The value — what you get for the money — and quality of life! When I show a house to a California buyer, the typical response is: “Wow! That would be double the price in L.A.!”

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How much of your business now consists of out-of-state buyers vs. locals moving up?

Debra Johnston I would say it’s 60-40. Previously, I would say it was the opposite so it’s a marked change from two years ago. I’m seeing a lot of New York and California license plates lately!

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Did anything catch you by surprise in 2021 compared to 2020?

Debra Johnston The biggest surprise for me was the number of sales I had last year. I’m having a career-record year, particularly with larger properties. Sales activity went up in 2021. People were getting out, and they wanted to upgrade and wanted more land. I thought 2021 was going to be better, but I just didn’t know how much better it was going to be.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Are there any myths about Atlanta real estate that you wish you could dispel?

Debra Johnston That Atlanta only has traditional architecture. We have a good mix of architecture now, and it’s being proven as more people are seeing what’s being built here.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Do you have any advice for buyers navigating the Atlanta market?

Debra Johnston Align with an excellent agent who knows the market [wink].

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What are you most looking forward to this year?

Debra Johnston A whole new environment and growth pattern into the national and international market with the Coldwell Banker Global Luxury platform. The new alliance benefits my clients to best position their property to a larger audience while expanding my network with the top brokers in the industry. I’m also very excited to be inducted into the International Luxury Alliance. I’m ready for expansion and opportunity on the national and international stage.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Any predictions for 2022 that you’d like to leave us with?

Debra Johnston As things get back to normal, we could see another wave of unprecedented sales. The expectation is that we could see international buyers coming onto the U.S. real estate scene as well as more families moving from other states. Atlanta is a great city, excellent value and the quality of life in the South is excellent. We are getting noticed!

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Debra Johnston on Atlanta’s Changing Face of Luxury

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