General Contractors--Single Family Houses

SIC 1521

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

The category covers general contractors primarily engaged in construction activities (including new work, additions, alterations, remodeling, and repair) of single-family houses.

Industry Snapshot

The housing construction industry started off the twenty-first century with a bang that fizzled in the middle of its first decade. Single-family housing starts increased every year from 2000 to 2005, when there were 1.72 million new single-family housing starts. The subprime mortgage crises in 2007 brought the housing boom to a quick end, as the low interest rates many home buyers had obtained earlier in the decade through adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) were reset to much higher rates. Many homeowners could not afford the resulting higher house payment, and thousands of Americans were put out of their homes. In fact, foreclosure filings jumped 75 percent to 2.2 million in 2007, according to RealtyTrac. The mortgage crisis as well as the slowing of the U.S. economy affected the construction segment of the industry as single-family housing starts dropped to 1.05 million in 2007. The decline continued in 2008 and 2009, when the U.S. Census Bureau reported 622,000 and 445,000 single-family housing starts, respectively. Industry experts were cautiously optimistic in 2010, however, and predicted a recovery--albeit a slow one--in the housing construction industry during the 2010s. According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), markets in the Northeast and South (except for Florida) were expected to improve first, followed by those in the Midwest. Western states, including California and Arizona, and industrial states were predicted to show the slowest recovery.

The single-family home construction industry comprises general contractors who are primarily engaged in building, remodeling, and repairing houses. Included in this industry classification are prefabricated housing units assembled onsite and townhouse construction. The single-family home construction industry is vital to the U.S. economy; it supplies jobs, tax revenue, and housing for Americans.

Organization and Structure

The single-family housing construction industry is unique for an industry of its size because it is highly fragmented and dispersed. The typical home is built by a contractor who produces fewer than 25 houses each year, while a majority of all industry employees work at firms with fewer than 25 workers. While some larger contractors maintain building operations in a number of sectors, about 75 percent of establishments engage only in single-family housing construction. These firms also account for 55 percent of industry employees.

Nonetheless, in alignment with most industries in the 1990s, single-family construction was rapidly consolidating. The top construction firms on Builder magazine's "Builder 100" list continued to expand their market share throughout the decade, particularly toward the late 1990s. The top five single-family contractors accelerated their market share the fastest, achieving 30 percent of the top 100's share in 1997, compared with 21 percent two years earlier. Altogether, the five largest contractors generated revenues of $14.9 billion in 1998.

The relative lack of concentration in the industry reflected the labor intensity and logistical complexity characteristic of on-site homebuilding. Regional and state building codes, trade unions, demographics, and environmental regulations combined to make the competitive structure of each local market unique. Many workers from various trades must be coordinated to complete a home. Moreover, many construction materials are less expensive when purchased regionally. Finally, the localized nature of housing markets prohibits many national economies of scale.

Large contracting companies that do compete nationally are often relatively decentralized--consisting of generally autonomous regional operating companies. The various units of the corporation benefit from financial strength, as well as geographic and market diversification. The few contractors that compete overseas usually do so through foreign-owned subsidiaries. Although U.S. manufacturers sell and ship significant amounts of manufactured housing to countries such as Mexico, the homes themselves are usually assembled and finished by foreign contractors.

General contractors in the industry operate in a variety of ways. Some contractors purchase property and perform all construction work themselves. In other cases, a general contractor may be hired by a developer or landowner to provide construction services. General contractors commonly subcontract some or a majority of building activities to other firms. In any case, the general contractor is ultimately responsible for the finished product.

Products and Services.
Two broad categories of homes are constructed or assembled on-site by the industry--attached and detached. Attached homes, commonly called town houses, can be owned by their occupants rather than rented. They are similar in construction to some apartment rental complexes, but town houses are separated from adjoining units by a ground-to-roof wall. In contrast to rental facilities, attached homes also have completely separate utilities and do not share infrastructure.

Detached homes are usually built on a lot that is owned by the same party that possesses the house. They typically have front, back, and side yards and are more expensive than attached homes. In 2009, 401,000 detached homes were constructed, accounting for more than 90 percent of the single-family market. These included manufactured houses, which are almost completely manufactured off-site, shipped to a lot, and assembled by a general contractor. Only the on-site assemblage of the home is classified as a single-family home construction activity.

Manufactured homes are typically smaller and less expensive than site-built homes. Because of federal manufacturing regulations, however, these units must conform to building codes that are stricter than those imposed by many local governments for site-built housing in a similar price range. Furthermore, quality control is often higher for manufactured homes, because they are built in a controlled, factory environment. Though they were conceived by the mobile home industry, manufactured homes in the first decade of the 2000s bore little resemblance to earlier mobile homes, which were often temporary-sited and cheaply constructed.

Many builders of both detached and attached homes employ a systems approach to building, which represents a hybrid of site-built and manufactured housing. This type of housing is also referred to as component or prefabricated housing, because large components of the home are built in a factory and designed for quick and easy assembly on-site. The four types of systems-built housing include precut homes, for which all lumber and materials are shipped to the site already cut; panelized homes, for which the main wall panels are shipped to the site, often with plumbing and wiring already installed; sectional homes, which are more than 90 percent complete when they leave the factory, and have cabinets and flooring already installed; and log homes, which are essentially factory-made kit homes. Furthermore, half of the new, larger manufactured homes built are placed on privately owned, scattered building sites, and into housing subdivisions.

In addition to new home construction, single-family home contractors also are engaged in maintenance and repair and home improvement work. Maintenance and repair includes painting, mudjacking, replacement of appliances, and similar work. Improvements consist of additions and alterations to existing structures involving major interior and exterior changes. Replacement of major items, such as furnaces and water heaters, is also considered home improvement. Americans are staying in their homes longer than they did previously. The median number of years Americans remained in one home in the earlier years of the first decade of the 2000s was 13 versus 10 a decade earlier. Nearly two-thirds of the dollars Americans spent on home improvements was targeted toward optional upgrades, such as kitchens, bathrooms, and family rooms, rather than for repair work.

Financial Market Influence.
The single-family home construction industry is extremely susceptible to changes in economic factors and financial markets. For example, as was evidenced in the late years of the first decade of the 2000s, there is a significant and direct negative correlation between federally controlled interest rates and the volume of new homes under construction. When the interest rate attainable on mortgage loans is low, housing starts are relatively high because of increased affordability. For example, a $100,000, 15-year home loan requires a buyer to make monthly payments of $899 per month when the interest rate is fixed at 7 percent. When the interest rate rises to 12 percent, however, that monthly payment jumps to $1,200. Such a system represented part of the reason that housing starts fell off so significantly in the late years of the decade.

In addition to interest rates, contractors are also affected by consumers' access to capital. For this reason, several government-sponsored enterprises, as well as private companies, make up the secondary mortgage market. This market consists of investors who buy mortgages from primary lenders, such as banks and thrifts, so that the lenders can use that money to make new loans. By backing mortgage loans, as well as mortgage securities created from pools of loans, the government helps to ensure a steady supply of capital to build, maintain, and improve housing.

Background and Development

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a large majority of Americans lived in rural areas, people who could afford to build a home often acted as the general contractors in the construction of their own home. They hired local builders and tradesmen with money that they had saved or borrowed from family members. Few regulations existed to ensure structural soundness or safety of new homes, and little long-term financing existed for prospective homeowners. Indeed, by the time the Great Depression hit, less than half of all U.S. families owned a home.

In an effort to increase home ownership, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934. By insuring home mortgages, the FHA made it possible for banks to make relatively low-interest loans to home buyers. By the early 1940s, Americans were building about 100,000 new homes each year. Outdated and often lacking basics, such as indoor plumbing and electricity, however, nearly half of the homes in the nation were considered substandard. Furthermore, most families still could not afford to buy a home, choosing instead to rent housing or live with family members. In 1942, the United States home ownership rate stood at approximately 46 percent.

The housing environment began a radical transformation in the mid-1940s for several reasons. Most important, much of the demand that had existed for new housing during World War II had gone unmet, as the country poured its resources into fighting a war. When soldiers returned home and started families, housing demand ballooned even further. The number of U.S. births leapt from less than 3 million in 1945 to about 3.75 million in 1947.

Coinciding with the jump in demand was the development of the Veterans Administration Home Loan Guaranty Program in 1944. Using a Veterans Administration (VA) loan, war veterans were able to obtain mortgage loans with little or no down payment. Besides insuring VA and FHA loans, the federal government also set a maximum interest rate that lenders could charge. Credit and tax policies, such as tax-deductible mortgage interest payments, were also used by the government to spur home ownership. Furthermore, the National Housing Act of 1949 set a national goal of providing "a decent home and suitable living environment for every U.S. family." As a result of government incentives and strong demand, both single and multi-family housing starts boomed--skyrocketing from 139,000 in 1944 to 1.9 million by 1950.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the postwar economy flourished, families flocked to the housing market in a buying frenzy. Thousands of tract subdivisions were built on the perimeter of urban America, typically offering quality detached homes for less than $10,000 in the 1950s, with mortgage payments of less than $100 per month. Indeed, during the 1950s and 1960s, an entire suburban culture emerged. Enormous street grids with identical homes in the early 1950s soon gave way to more elaborate and attractive neighborhood layouts that offered a variety of Cape Cod and ranch style home designs. Split-level homes and garages also became dominant features in many communities.

In addition to the rise in the number of U.S. homes in the 1950s and 1960s, housing quality improved. Besides new federal and state regulations that mandated structural integrity and uniform infrastructure, new construction techniques increased home quality and affordability. Component construction, for instance, let builders efficiently erect large numbers of units. Plywood replaced expensive boards, and drywall was introduced as an improvement to lath and plaster construction. Portable generators, power trowels, backhoes, and other heavy equipment allowed contractors to realize massive productivity gains. Although less than 2 percent of homes in 1960 had air-conditioning, almost all new homes sported indoor plumbing, central heat, electricity, and gas. Furthermore, most newer homes in the 1960s had more than one bathroom.

Despite cyclical downturns caused by interest rates and energy prices, the housing industry remained healthy throughout the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, although single-family housing starts dropped by 50 percent in 1966 to about 800,000, they peaked in 1972 at about 1.3 million. After falling to approximately 850,000 in 1975, housing starts rose to more than 1.4 million in 1977. Despite increasing land and construction costs, housing starts in general surged in the 1970s, as baby boomers matured and began buying homes. In the 1970s, housing prices outran inflation by an average of 3 percent per year. By 1980, the U.S. home ownership rate had risen to more than 65 percent.

While the number of Americans owning their own home steadily rose during the 1970s, housing quality and construction productivity also advanced. Fiberglass and plastic products--used for everything from bathroom fixtures and plumbing to siding--helped to allay the impact of rising material and energy costs. Furthermore, by 1979, the share of new homes that offered central air-conditioning had risen to more than 60 percent. Most important, rising energy costs had caused builders to increase the efficiency of their products with better windows and doors, insulation, and heating and cooling equipment.

The 1980s and 1990s.
Although contractors began construction on nearly 1.2 million new homes in 1979, the industry was devastated in the early 1980s by soaring interest rates. As mortgage rates skyrocketed past 16 percent, housing starts collapsed to 705,000 in 1981 and then to 663,000 during 1982. Many builders filed for bankruptcy in the severely depressed market. Contractors who survived the shakeout, however, were greeted by falling interest rates in 1983 that continued through 1987. Single-family housing starts leaped 62 percent in 1983, to about 1.1 million. Throughout the mid-1980s, in fact, new home construction inched upward to nearly 1.2 million starts by 1986.

Despite apparently healthy construction activity in the 1980s, single-family home contractors were failing to achieve growth rates attained in the three previous decades. Several factors indicated that the industry was declining. Of immense importance, the affordability of housing for younger buyers began slipping after peaking in 1980. Although the total home ownership rate only declined from 65.6 percent in 1980 to 63.9 percent in 1990, the rate for the population in the 30- to 34-year age bracket plummeted from 61.1 percent to 51.8 percent. Furthermore, the ownership rate for 35- to 39-year-olds fell from 70.9 percent to 69.8 percent during the 1980s. The ownership rate for the 25- to 29-year-old age bracket recessed even more.

To make matters worse, housing starts began slowly declining in 1987, as interest rates edged upward and the U.S. economy began to fall into a recession. Despite the government's lowering of mortgage rates in 1990, housing starts quickly plummeted to 895,000 in 1990 and to 840,000 in 1991. In addition, contractors were also battling rising expenses associated with burdensome regulations and material costs. Although the generally distressed industry forced many builders across the nation into bankruptcy, contractors in some regions of the country fared much worse than others.

After a five-year decline in housing starts, the single-family home construction industry experienced a relatively weak recovery in 1992. The early 1990s housing slump differed from past slowdowns, since the recession in the early 1990s hit upper- and middle-income white-collar wage earners--the bulk of the housing market--the hardest. Earlier recessions had a greater impact on blue-collar workers, who are more likely to rent. In addition to job losses, construction loans for builders remained suppressed throughout the early 1990s. Total construction lending by commercial banks, for instance, declined more than 40 percent between 1989 and 1992. Small construction companies that supply the large majority of U.S. homes were especially crunched by tight credit.

Contractors were especially disappointed by weak growth in the early 1990s in the area of remodeling and repair expenditures, which are traditionally relatively impervious to cyclical downturns. Although new home construction generally drives the industry, remodeling and repair contracts had grown during the 1980s to account for more than 45 percent of the value of all single-family home construction.

One impetus for the rapid consolidation of the single-family home-contracting industry was the parallel consolidation that has characterized lumber and building material (LBM) dealers. Builders recognized that by pooling resources, they were more easily able to demand better pricing deals, thus maintaining leverage over suppliers. LBM dealers followed suit using the same logic, thus producing a self-replicating trend. While small, localized contractors tend to enjoy relative stability in their immediate markets, mid-sized contractors found it increasingly difficult to establish economies of scale. Thus the mid- and late 1990s witnessed these firms' increasing absorption into their larger competitors, who were more capable of hedging against increases in material and labor costs, the prime factors holding the single-family home construction market in check in the late 1990s.

The industry's previous stabs at consolidation were less than spectacular, with firms quickly realizing diminishing returns after 10,000 homes built. Leading firms in the late 1990s combated this tendency by decentralizing managerial structures to allow for greater autonomy at the local levels within the organization.

The market for professional remodeling continued its strong showing for the 1990s--worth $40 billion in 1998. A good portion of this success was owed to demographic trends. Whereas the home-building market of the early 1990s was driven by the tendency for consumers to "downsize" to smaller homes, particularly as baby boomers' "empty nests" led them to abandon their larger homes, the strong economy of the late 1990s produced many more customers for building additions and remodeling.

Factory-built homes also registered strong growth. These buildings, alternately called systems-built or modular homes, incorporate building methods that are virtually identical to those of standard detached homes, but that occur in a factory, thus avoiding weather-related delays. Modular homes are shipped to the site in fewer than 10 pieces before construction is finished onsite. Modular homes often weigh as much as 30 percent more than conventional homes. Most modular homes can be completed in 30 to 60 days; however, they were still a small market sector, totaling only 8 percent of all homes built in 1997.

In 1998, the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell to 6.94 percent, down from 8.36 percent in 1994, to reach the lowest level since the early 1960s. Mortgage originations reached a record $1.5 trillion. As a result, more households could claim the income necessary to purchase their own home. The housing market thus responded in kind.

Regional Differences.
Despite strong overall business in the single-family housing industry, some regions experienced stronger growth rates in housing starts in the late 1990s. In 1999, sales increased in all regions except the Northeast. Midwest housing sales increased by 5 percent, while those in the South and West experienced a 2 percent growth. Total housing starts in 1997 were broken down by region as follows: the South started 630,000 new home projects, the West 335,000, the Midwest 292,000, and the Northeast 127,000. The generally more-built northeastern market faced higher taxes relating to land development and building. Seventy-five percent of households in the rural United States are homeowners.

Rising Costs.
Escalating construction costs, attributable to a variety of factors, were a primary cause of declining home ownership among younger Americans in the mid- and late 1990s. One reason that costs were rising was a jump in the price of land, materials, and labor necessary to build homes. The cost of materials for single-family home contractors totaled $42 billion in 1997. In addition, more restrictive land regulations increased land costs, largely a result of emerging antigrowth initiatives to combat urban sprawl and environmental degradation that have reached U.S. legislatures. In general, land prices have increased less dramatically than those for building materials, though stronger markets have achieved double-digit growth. Meanwhile, costs associated with new impact fees, building codes, environmental rules, safety laws, and other regulations were increasingly squeezing contractors, especially mid-sized firms.

Builders also suffered from bloated costs associated with the tight labor market and the scramble to find a shrinking number of skilled laborers, including managerial workers. In addition to wages, the cost of complying with federal worker safety regulations in the late 1990s often exceeded $1,000 for a 2,200-square-foot home.

Other Trends.
Minority groups watched their homeownership rate increase in the 1990s. About 45 percent of African-Americans were homeowners in 1998, up from 43 percent in 1994. Hispanics' homeownership rate increased from 42 percent to 45 percent in that period.

Regional shifts in the population require that homes be constructed where the population is moving. In the 1990s, there was a dramatic population shift toward the South and West, a trend that accelerated into the early years of the first decade of the 2000s.

New housing construction remained a bright spot in the economy during the early years of the first decade of the 2000s. While industrial and commercial activity declined, housing construction continued to grow. Extremely low mortgage rates, combined with the safety of real estate investments, provided fertile ground for the industry during a period of time marked by economic recession and instability caused by political volatility in the Middle East.

In 2004, the total number of single-family construction, remodeling, and repairing of houses stood at some 288,598. There were approximately 908,895 construction workers sharing $170,840 million in annual sales. The average construction company was small, comprised of three workers generating about $60 million in revenues. Single-family housing construction represented the largest sector of the industry, with 48.2 percent of the market. New construction of single-family houses represented 23.1 percent, while general remodeling of single-family houses held 20.6 percent.

A very fragmented industry, the single-family housing construction industry showed signs of consolidation, as large building contractors targeted smaller operations. Professional Builder predicted that the industry would continue growing through acquisitions and mergers, noting,"For most of the past decade, the public Masters of the Universe--especially the big five at the top, all with more than 25,000 completions a year--have grown by acquiring smaller local or regional production builders that offered strong share positions in new markets, often hot markets with impressive annual housing starts."

After single-family housing starts topped 1.7 million in 2005, it dropped to 1.47 million in 2006, below the 2003 level of nearly 1.5 million. Prime interest rates started to climb, and foreclosures in California increased 300 percent between 2004 and 2007, while Nevada, Massachusetts, and Minnesota each saw an increase of more than 150 percent. By the end of 2007, 2.2 million houses in the United States had been foreclosed.

In response to the downturn in the industry, many builders started to advertise discounts of tens of thousands of dollars. According to NAHB, about 59 percent of the nation's builders offered discounts in September 2007, with average discounts of 9 percent. Both figures were the highest on record since surveys began in January 2006.

Other homeowners ready to move found difficulty selling their houses in the deflated market, particularly since the rapid rise in cost of a new home in the first decade of the 2000s. The median annual sales price of a new home in 2006 was $246,500, up from $169,000 in 2000. At the same time, credit availability had tightened to avoid further problem with foreclosures.

Furthermore, the rising costs of land, labor, and materials were challenges to single-family homebuilders at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Drywall and lumber prices, which tend to be somewhat unstable, were particularly inflated, while increases in land costs were less pronounced, though some strong markets, especially in southern cities, experienced significant escalation.

During the single-family housing construction decline of the mid-years of the first decade of the 2000s, the focus shifted to home remodeling, including additions and alterations, maintenance and repairs, and major replacements. The majority of contracted projects included additions or alterations, followed by maintenance and repairs with a small number of major replacements.

Current Conditions

As the United States as well as the rest of the world headed into a recession in the late years of the first decade of the 2000s, the government responded with legislation to try to stimulate the economy. Such legislation included the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The latter allocated $12.7 billion to the housing market, including $2.25 billion in tax credits for financing low-income housing construction. In addition, the Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009 extended a first-time home buyer tax credit of $8,000, which included home owners who contracted to build a new home.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, spending on single-family housing construction increased on a monthly basis for the first time in more than three years between May 2009 and June 2009, growing 2.4 percent. Like other industry experts, Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight predicted single-family construction would continue to grow. By 2010, figures in the residential construction industry looked promising. In April 2010, for example, $272.2 million was spent on residential construction starts, an increase of 4.6 percent from April 2009. However, single-family housing construction fell 17.2 percent in May 2010, showing a complete recovery of the industry may be slow to come.

The downturn in the U.S. housing construction industry also brought to a halt the trend toward increased average square footage that had begun in the 1970s. For example, according to the NAHB, the average new home in the United States in 1975 was 1,645 square feet; in 1990 it was 2,080; and in 2007 it was 2,521. Average price per square foot also increased steadily, from $55.18 in 1992 to $70.43 in 2000 and $92.51 in 2007. Due to the glut of available housing, by 2009, average price per square foot had dropped to $83.89.

Industry Leaders

In 2009 top home builder Centex Corp. merged with Pulte Homes of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to create the largest home building company in the United States. In 2008 Pulte sold 39,000 homes and had sales of $11.6 billion. The new company had operations in 29 states and the District of Columbia in 2010.

D.R. Horton Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, was another industry leader. The firm sold 16,700 homes in fiscal 2009, a decrease of 37 percent from the previous year and a huge drop from the 53,000 homes sold in 2006. Like other home builders, D.R. Horton was affected by the housing market and mortgage crisis as well as the economic downturn of the late years of the first decade of the 2000s. Nevertheless, the company operated in 30 states and had sales of $3.7 billion in 2009. The average home built by D.R. Horton sold for $213,400, and the company employed 2,926 workers.

Lennar Corp. of Miami, Florida, operated in 14 states and sold 11,500 homes in fiscal 2009 with an average price of $243,000. Like D.R. Horton and others, Lennar had a much better year in 2007 when it sold 33,000 houses. Total revenues for Lennar reached $3.1 billion in 2009 with 3,835 employees.


Employment in single-family housing construction decreased throughout the late years of the first decade of the 2000s due to the decline in the industry. However, Ken Simonson of the Associated General Contractors of America predicted in May 2010 that stimulus-funded construction projects and single-family housing starts would be the primary drivers in an upswing in industry employment. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29 states added construction jobs between March and April 2010.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33,100 residential construction managers in the United States earned an average annual salary of $89,040 in 2009. Construction laborers in the residential sector numbered 91,620 and earned an average of $31,540 a year.

Research and Technology

By the 2010s, technology was being built into single-family homes from the ground up. For example, according to the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA), homes were designed with the expectation that future occupants would want wireless technology for everything from computer networks to entertainment systems, security systems, and heating and lighting. These were also built to integrate with each other, so that there were fewer "gadgets" and remote controls needed to manipulate multiple systems. The other twenty-first century trend that had made its way into the home-building industry was the "green" movement, and builders strove to incorporate environmentally friendly materials and practices as they designed and built new homes.

In addition, steel producers aggressively positioned themselves to establish inroads in the construction market as a safer and longer-lasting alternative to wood. Steel costs are generally higher than those for wood, but while wood prices generally tend to fluctuate, steel prices remain fairly stable.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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