A miniature boom for big condo dreams

As the market for condos has slowed in the past 18 months, business has grown for the people who make the s cale models that are used to help sell them.

Published January 17, 2007

CLEARWATER -- The white condominium towers of the Marquesas shimmer against the green water of the Gulf of Mexico. A man shuffles along between perfectly arced palm trees. A woman basks in the sun on the penthouse porch.

This is a model of condominium living in Florida.

No, really, this is a model, a miniature mockup of a building yet to be built. And in today's nightmarish condo market, this is an essential part of selling the condo dream.

Over the past 18 months, condos have gone from the hottest sector in the real estate market to the coldest, a victim of rising property taxes, soaring insurance premiums and the threat of hurricanes.

But bad news for the condo market, it turns out, can be good news for the people who make the miniature scale models used to sell them. Since summer, when condo sales fell dramatically, the modelmakers' business has grown as developers become desperate to sell their properties.

"When the market slows down, that's when they need these buildings more than ever," said Bill Minor, a Fort Myers modelmaker. "If one developer has a model and the other developer doesn't, that can sway a buyer."

The miniature market is big business.

High-end models can top $100,000 and take three months to complete. While there are no authoritative figures on the number of modelmakers in Florida, a good-size firm might have 10 or 20 employees.

"A good model is helpful even in a great market," said David Hooks, a spokesman for Trump Tower Tampa, which was announced two years ago and has since been stalled by soil compaction problems. "It really helps complete the picture giving them an idea of the scope and scale. It's a tremendous selling tool."

Modelmakers start with the building's blueprints and painstakingly draw them into a computer program to make a three-dimensional schematic.

The models can be a few feet tall and half a dozen feet wide. They're often cast at a scale of 1/8 of an inch to a foot.

Using a computer-guided laser, the modelmakers cut pieces out of Plexiglas and other synthetics. Then they glue the pieces together.

"We used to do it all by hand," recalls Roxanne Meadows, a model builder who worked on the Marquesas condominiums in Clearwater, as well as Ovation in St. Petersburg and Trump Tower Tampa. "Our class of model is more than an architectural model. It is a motion picture model. You could film it and it would look like the real thing."

In fact, Hollywood often gets involved in the modelmaking business. Andy Meyers, a Fort Myers model builder, used to work on projects for filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg before he got involved making condominium miniatures. His resume includes building dinosaurs for Jurassic Park as well as props and models for Terminator 3, Spider-Man 2 and The Passion of the Christ.

His and others' models are works of art, showing not only the bricks and mortar of the structure but also the paver stones, the rails, the luxury cars, the trees, the bushes, the sand, the water, the windows and, of course, the plastic people who inhabit the building. Some models even allow for individual rooms to be lit up as if someone were living in them.

The cumulative effect is a tableau of human life frozen in time. The miniatures evoke condo life without the financial, psychological and even meteorological encumbrances that beset today's condo inhabitants. That's no small part of the attraction.

Bill Minor, the owner of Advanced Architectural Solutions in Fort Myers, has worked on 10,000 condo units in the last decade.

So what if they're not full-size?

"We build them exactly like a builder would, from the ground up," he said. "When you look at the sales center model, everything's 100 percent true to what it will be when it gets built."

One of his firm's models is the Bella Capri, a ritzy 24-unit condo along Indian Rocks Beach. Right now, the actual lot is little more than leveled sand, but inside the sales trailer, the architectural model is on display.

Prospective buyers like to pick up the roof and look into the central atrium or get down on eye level with a unit and gaze out, trying to imagine the view, said Linda McIlroy, one of the Realtors handling preconstruction sales.

"It's not so much selling the penthouse," said Richard Hilton, a Fort Lauderdale modelmaker. "Everyone's going to sell the penthouse. It's really coming down to the last 10 units that's when the model is going to help. ... (Buyers) actually see the thing. It's physical. It's three-dimensional."

Today's savvy buyers demand it.

"They're out there looking to eliminate you rather than include you," said Steve McAuliffe, vice president of sales and marketing for JMC Communities, which developed the Marquesas and Ovation. "When we have something like a scale model and they can come in, it just helps them further understand, they're seeing the community in a different light."


. Monthly sales

The Multiple Listing Service shows 9,210 condos on the market in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco as of the end of 2006. Florida Association of Realtors data show month-to-month sales of existing condos plummeting over the last year in the Tampa - St. Petersburg-Clearwater area.


Jan. 05 to Jan. 06: +7%

Feb. 05 to Feb. 06: -10%

Mar. 05 to Mar. 06: -10%

April 05 to April 06: -38%

May 05 to May 06: -36%

June 05 to June 06: -47%

July 05 to July 06: -52%

Aug. 05 to Aug. 06: -41%

Sept. 05 to Sept. 06-46%

Oct. 05 to Oct. 06: -51%

Nov. 05 to Nov. 06: -38%

Dec. 05 to Dec. 06: N/A