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Where have all the home builders gone?

Greg Spier (right) of Maystar Homes, which is phasing out home construction, and carpenter Brian Lozito at 61 Lakeview Road in Foxborough.
Greg Spier (right) of Maystar Homes, which is phasing out home construction, and carpenter Brian Lozito at 61 Lakeview Road in Foxborough. Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Liz Kovach co-owned Windswept Custom Homes in Dennis for more than two decades, building one or two custom homes per year on Cape Cod. But five years ago, Kovach and her husband decided to close up shop, with Kovach taking a job as a manager at a lumber company and her husband becoming a custom cabinet maker.

“It was an economically driven decision,” said Kovach, noting that the construction industry was still reeling from the recession when she shut down her company. “It used to be fun to build homes, but it just became too difficult and more of a hassle.”

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Windswept Custom Homes is among the hundreds of home builders in Massachusetts — and thousands across the country — that have vanished in the decade since the housing boom went bust. Membership in the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts has plunged to about 1,500 companies, a 44 percent drop from the prerecession peak of 2,700 in 2006. During that period, membership at the National Association of Home Builders dove 47 percent to about 30,000 companies from 57,000.

Those numbers closely track US Census data that show about half of all residential construction companies — many of them mom-and-pop home builders — were wiped out during the Great Recession.

But even as the economy has improved, with the unemployment rate sliding to 5 percent nationally and 4.6 percent in Massachusetts, the home construction industry isn’t close to recovering from the housing crash.

Nationally, new single-family home construction is expected to hit 700,000 this year, about half the 1.3 million housing starts normally expected at this point in an economic recovery, said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economic research arm of the Moody’s credit-rating company.

In Massachusetts, the number of housing permits issued is on track to end this year at about 14,000 units, down 44 percent from the prerecession peak of 24,500 permits in 2005, according to census data.

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The economics of home building simply aren’t there for most industry players, especially for smaller contractors with limited access to capital, Zandi said. The main reason: tight construction financing. Banks, which absorbed big losses from construction loans during the recession, remain reluctant to lend for home building.

“That’s really hurting smaller firms,” Zandi said. “Larger home builders often have the capital to finance projects on their own, but the small guys, they can’t build without bank loans.”

Builders agree that tight credit is hurting them, but they say the industry in Massachusetts has deeper problems than that. They say state and local regulations — from environmental rules to 55-plus age restrictions to zoning that requires large lots — have made it harder and harder to build homes in the state.

Municipal officials counter that zoning rules are meant to protect the environment and character of communities, or prevent school systems from becoming overburdened. But home builders say the practical effect is that they can’t find affordable land — so they’re throwing in the towel by closing, selling, or only doing remodeling.

Greg Spier, the owner of Maystar Homes in Foxborough, said his company is now phasing out construction of homes after it finishes a handful of projects in Foxborough and will become primarily a remodeling company.

“Building new homes is just too risky and capital-intensive,” he said. “If there were less regulations and if the profit margins were better, I’d surely stay in the business. But the business model of building new homes doesn’t work anymore.”

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The number of home builders has declined for decades in Massachusetts, industry officials say. Bob Ernst, president of the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Boston, said his group counts about 400 members, down from more than 1,000 in 1980.

At the state builders association, about 10 percent of members are “pure home builders,” relying almost exclusively on constructing new houses rather than remodeling existing ones, said Brad Campbell, executive director. That’s down from about 35 percent in 2006.

The shift was so pronounced that five years ago the industry group changed its name. The Home Builders Association of Massachusetts became the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts.

Profound change

48,557: Home building companies in 2012

98,060: Home building companies in 2007

SOURCE: US Census

Greg Spier, the owner of Maystar Homes in Foxborough, said his company will become primarily a remodeling company. “The business model of building new homes doesn’t work anymore,’’ he said.
Greg Spier, the owner of Maystar Homes in Foxborough, said his company will become primarily a remodeling company. “The business model of building new homes doesn’t work anymore,’’ he said.Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.