Skywater Estates

Helicopter tour lets wealthy buyers scout for homes by air

By Paul Owers

South Florida Sun Sentinel –

May 27, 2009

Nestled in his seat 500 feet above Fort Lauderdale, Jason Donald looks out the helicopter window at the $5 million mansion.

“It’s a nice house, but do you see the standing water on the roof?” he asks into his headset.

“Our home inspection is starting,” says Larry Morales, co-owner of the Skywater Estates real estate firm. “Good catch. Cross this one out.”

And with that the chopper ascends, heading north to the second of six properties on this aerial tour for Donald, 38, an Internet company executive looking to move to South Florida from Tampa this summer.

Skywater rents a helicopter six or seven times a year for well-to-do clients serious about buying. It’s a way for them to peruse a handful of properties quickly and offers a perspective not seen on foot.

“From the ground, it would have taken me at least 1 1/2 or two hours to look at all these homes,” Donald says. “But in a helicopter, we were done in 35, 40 minutes.”

As the state and national housing slump lingers into a fourth year, real estate agents are finding creative ways to impress clients.

An agent on the west coast of Florida takes prospective buyers on boat tours of foreclosed homes. And agents in South Florida and elsewhere have organized limousine tours.

Luxury home sales are especially soft in a down economy, so brokers have to do all they can to reach out to buyers, said Richard Barkett, chief executive of the Realtor Association of Greater Fort Lauderdale.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that agents are doing this,” he said. “Buyers can definitely appreciate an aerial view.”

The chopper with black leather seats costs Skywater $1,000 an hour, which the firm can easily cover with one six-figure commission.

Skywater offers helicopter tours for home buyers as well as commercial developers eyeing large tracts of land. Most properties are in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, although the firm will go to Palm Beach County and other areas across the state.

Ree Fritz Cole, Skywater’s co-owner and broker, has spent the past six months helping Donald search for homes. He’s looking for an estate in the $4.2 million to $5 million range, with enough dock space for two boats. Also on his wish list: a gourmet kitchen and an elaborate master bedroom and pool.

The fourth property on the tour, a five-bedroom palace with a clean white facade on the market for $5.4 million, immediately catches Donald’s eye. It has 6,750 square feet under air, an elevator and water views from every room.

“That is gorgeous,” Cole says. “The whole outside is marble.”

The tour ends with a 7,400-square-foot home in Pompano Beach, which Donald dismisses as too far north. The chopper hugs the coastline on its trip south and touches down on the roof of a downtown Fort Lauderdale parking garage.

Back on the ground, Cole calls the listing agents for four of the homes, making arrangements for her to preview the properties. She’ll take photos for a slide show and then have Donald visit the homes himself before he makes an offer. He hopes to find a place by August.

Cole, the ex-wife of actor Dennis Cole, says the helicopter tours have become an important part of her business.

“It makes people feel special, I think,” she says. “Any niche you can have is valuable.”

Paul Owers can be reached at or 561-243-6529.

Copyright © 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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