After an 8-year run as one of the region's best-regarded builders, Tripp Trademark Homes is calling it quits.
Company founder Doug Tripp, a former Pulte Homes president who branched out on his own in 2000, said he can no longer afford to sell houses at a loss.
"We're going to walk away from this with our reputation intact," said Tripp, who has spent the past month clearing debts with banks and contractors. "There isn't a builder out there that's making a profit."
Tripp Trademark is at least the seventh locally active builder to go out of business or file for bankruptcy during the past year.
"With Doug and Smith Family Homes and Nohl Crest Homes going out of business, that's a real serious blow to the local home building industry,'' said local housing consultant Marvin Rose.
Tripp was named one of the nation's fastest-growing builders in 2002. The company's niche was building duplexes — dubbed villas — in fast-growing neighborhoods. By 2006, Tripp was ranked tops in the region for customer satisfaction on the annual J.D. Power and Associates home builder survey.
Since 2000, it has built nearly 800 homes in places such as Meadow Pointe in Wesley Chapel, Oakstead in Land O'Lakes and Williams Crossing in Brandon. Tripp has laid off all but six of his 22 employees. He'll keep a skeleton crew to sell the company's remaining 20 homes and service warranties.
The 59-year-old businessman greeted a reporter Wednesday from his all-but-vacant headquarters on State Road 54. Tripp said he plans to spend the next few months enjoying life on the ski slopes. On Wednesday he flew to a golf outing in North Carolina.
Tripp said this is the worst housing slump in his 32 years in the business. Sales tanked in previous real estate recessions, but he's never seen housing values plunge 30 percent.
Blame falls mostly on the investors who created "false demand" in 2004 and 2005, he said.
Those investor homes, many sunk in foreclosure, have boomeranged back onto the market, devastating builders and homeowners alike.
Housing starts are about a third of what they were two years ago.
Tripp admits he made a mint in the building boom and points to a group photo on his conference room wall. There, he stands with his sister, wife, brother, nephew and mother-in-law: All were employees.
"It's really killing me. I've got to throw out my 'For Sale' signs," he said. "What do I need them for?"