Contrary to popular opinion, money is still available for acquisition, development, and construction in Florida. It's just that quick-buck speculators need not apply.

“Lenders are no longer lending to second and third-tier developers,” says Robert Kaplan, senior managing director in the Miami office of Holliday Fenoglio Fowler L.P., a real estate investment-banking firm. With headquarters in Boston, HFF has 17 offices nationwide offering clients a full range of capital solutions.

According to Kaplan, it's now “survival of the fittest” in the Sunshine State, where sales have slowed considerably. “Deals that made sense a year ago don't make sense now. Now real estate is a real business again, whereas a year ago everybody and their brothers could make money” selling condos.

Because Florida is no longer “the huge blow out” market it once was, lenders have become very cautious. They're particularly skeptical about costs. “They've seen many deals initiated and then stopped when the hard costs become known,” the loan arranger says. And they're nervous about speculative buyers, especially if they put just 10 percent upfront and are expected to put up another 10 percent when construction starts.

The good news for established players: Lenders haven't closed their vaults entirely. Rather, they are focusing almost entirely on what Kaplan calls “top tier” companies which have extraordinary relationships with their subcontractors, are aligned with brokers with strong ties to the international marketplace and, of course, have great locations.

CAUTION: Money is still available for real estate, but lenders are focusing on top-tier companies and taking a closer look at every deal. Waterfront is still “the gold standard,” he says, with golf course sites ranking just a notch below that. “Something off the beach is a completely different market; sales there are spottier. And now it's ‘real selling,' so you need good, old-fashion brokers who can reach out to buyers from all over the world. There's terrific interest internationally.”

While many buyers are coming from South America and Europe, one of Kaplan's clients recently “sold a chunk of units” to a group of South Koreans.

In the condo arena particularly, Florida has been beseiged by a lot of land speculators who “didn't have those component parts,” and “now they're the ones who are stuck,” according to Kaplan. “They were hoping to sell approved sites at huge profits, and everyday there are announcements of projects not getting built. But even with that, there are a whole lot of successful projects and successful developers.”

Kaplan, a former attorney, is proof of that. Working with two senior analysts, he has been Holliday Fenoglio Fowler's top producer over the last 12 months, funding some $1.5 billion worth of real estate. His latest deals have been with repeat customers with extensive resumes.

In one, he arranged for $56.6 million for the acquisition and conversion of Bristol Place at Metrowest, a 328-unit apartment property adjacent to the Metrowest Golf Club in Orlando. In the other, he secured $27 million in land and predevelopment financing for Dolphin Reef, a 62-unit mixed-use property along the James River in Jacksonville.

Bristol Place is a 20-building project by Beach Hill Development, which has previously converted The Waverly and The Collins in Miami Beach, Atlantic Springs in Coral Springs and Madison at MetroWest in Palm Harbor. HHF arranged the financing for all four properties.

Dolphin Reef, a 980-unit property with 40,000 square feet of retail and a 130-slip marina, is a joint venture between the Hudson Capital Group and an unnamed private investment group. In the past two years, HHF has closed 14 deals with Hudson, most of which have been in Florida.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.