Model homes, vacant symbols of Florida's real estate crash, appear empty and lifeless.
Yet in 2008, they were among the biggest residential consumers of water in the Tampa Bay area.
Of the 35 biggest users last year, seven were model homes that used more than 1 million gallons of water each, according to utility records in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Four of the homes were cited for violating water restrictions.
One Pasco model used about 1.5 million gallons, the 10th biggest residential water consumer in the Tampa Bay area.
"They want to keep the grass nice and green so the home could sell," said Pasco utilities manager Annamarie O'Dell. "People are desperate.''
Water usage has become a hot topic as a three-year drought worsens and local governments struggle to meet demand. On Thursday, Tampa became the first local government in Florida to ban the use of lawn sprinklers.
Some builders say the numbers are deceiving because water from one meter may go to two or three model homes, which are used to lure potential buyers. But even then, the average use would be more than four times that of a typical family.
Unlike the million-dollar estates that top the list of homes using more than 1 million gallons last year, most of the model homes are in the $250,000-$300,000 range.
The model home with the highest water usage, on Tigerflower Court in the Dupree community of Land O'Lakes in Pasco, used about 1.5 million gallons last year. That cost Beazer Homes about $6,500.
Beazer and Ryland Homes own the majority of the model homes with the highest use, records show.
Rylands division president Joe Fontana said meters could cover up to three homes, with regular lawn irrigation and weekly pool refills. Also, real estate agents and prospective buyers flush toilets and run the water in sinks of the homes, many of which have been on the market for years.
Their water use "is not flagrant or anything," Fontana said. "They're big lots."
But county water officials say water use by home builders has been a problem for years. Builders instruct their property managers to "water as you need to keep the curb appeal," said Hillsborough water conservation manager Norm Davis.
Model homes along the half-mile Manistique Way in New Port Richey, two of which used more than 1 million gallons in 2008, have received 68 water citations since June.
Five of Hillsborough's seven highest-using models have been cited for violating water restrictions. A four-bedroom Taylor Morrison home in Riverview, which used more than 1.3 million gallons of water, violated restrictions four times, costing the company $1,000.
Davis said some builders show "little regard for long-term viability of the water resource."
"It would seem,'' he said, "that some builders accept citations as a cost of doing business."
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.