ELKHART — One of Elkhart County's oldest and largest home builders is closing its doors.
Oakbrook Homes, founded in 1958, will close by the end of the year after finishing the 15 homes it has under construction, owner Bob LeMaster said Friday, May 2.
LeMaster said his 20 employees, working out of offices at 30677 Old U.S. 20, will be phased out as the 15 homes are finished. He hopes that gradual "winding it down" will help them find other employment.
LeMaster, who also owns Elkhart-based commercial builder LeMaster Steel Erectors Inc., bought Oakbrook Homes in 2009 after the death of owner Willie Miller. Before the recession and housing market crash of 2008-09, Oakbrook was building more than 100 homes a year. Now it's only building about 25 homes a year, LeMaster said.
"The market is not going to come back, in my opinion, to where we're going to build 100-plus homes again," he said. "It's just not going to happen."
LeMaster said the company had three or four main competitors before the crash. Now there are about 15, he said.
"Employees of larger home builders went out and started their own home builder businesses" after the crash, he said. "The residential market is very competitive right now. There's a lot of very good competition for a much smaller market."
LeMaster said employees learned the news Wednesday.
"We've built 6,000 homes in those 55 years. It's sad news, tragic news, but actually they took it very well," he said. "There wasn't much surprise. They knew the market isn't what we need. We have two employees that are older and this is the only job they have ever had in their life. They're career Oakbrook people."
New home construction in Elkhart County last year, while rising in recent years, was still down 65 percent from its pre-crash level. In 2006 the county building department issued 688 permits for new home starts. That number fell to 505 in 2007, 297 in 2008 and 119 in 2009. Last year there were 241 permits, up from 180 in 2012 and 130 in 2011, according to figures provided by the county.
In the city of Elkhart, there were 59 permits issued in 2006 and only 15 last year.
"We're just not doing the volume we need to do to make it worthwhile," LeMaster said.
LeMaster said he thinks home building in the county will continue to increase in the next couple years as the recreational vehicle industry's growth continues, but not enough to justify staying in the business.