As we talk on the phone, he never comes right out and calls it his "dream house." Yet those two words, unspoken, come through everything Alex Gerena of Glassboro says about his first home - the one he's having built in Franklinville, Gloucester County.

Make that the one he thought he was having built. Gerena and his wife, Xiomara, both 32, gave Signature Homes Inc. of West Berlin a total of $15,100 in February - all of which was supposed to have been placed in escrow - as good-faith money and as a deposit when the contract for the $340,000 house was signed.

"A beautiful home on an acre of land - everything felt so right about it, so cozy," Gerena said.

Construction was to have begun in April, builder Frank Inzanni told the Gerenas. Instead, on April 22, Inzanni sent the couple a letter in which he announced that Signature Homes was "closing its doors indefinitely," the result of increasingly difficult financial times affecting the housing market.

The news did not seem surprising to many in the South Jersey residential-construction market. In 2005, Signature sold and completed 125 homes. In 2008, that number was down to 25. Up to the point the Gerenas received their letter, 2009 had brought only 14 contracts.

Thus far, efforts to contact Inzanni have been unsuccessful. His voice-mail box is full; requests to speak to him, left on his receptionist's line, have not been acknowledged. Signature's Web site consists of a sparse home page, with no links to current projects.

An in-person visit a few weeks back was no more fruitful: The door was locked, and no one answered; activity indoors was not visible because of a tinted surface on the door. In an April 24 e-mail, another buyer, who did not give a name, wrote that the reflective tint had been added the week before - a day after he had visited to ask about his house, which remains "sticked out and roughed in," with nothing else done on it for more than two months.

A check of legal filings showed the builder had not filed for protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The Gerenas moved to Glassboro from an apartment in North Jersey to be near Alex's mother, Luz, when his father, Army Reserve Lt. Col. Miguel Gerena, was assigned to Iraq.

"We thought about buying our own house pretty much from the start, and for a year and half, we really looked intensely for a place but found nothing we liked," he says.

In December, "we were still going back and forth about it when we looked at Signature Homes and the land in Franklinville," Alex Gerena says. After the contract was signed in February, March was spent "picking out options."

"When we signed the contract, they said they'd start building in two months, and that we would go to closing Oct. 23," he says. "Everything was in order, including the mortgage-commitment letter."

Then came April 22, and the letter from Inzanni.

"We couldn't believe it," Gerena says. "We had a lawyer look over the contract before we signed it. We called him to make sure that we hadn't done anything wrong, and that all the money we'd given them was in escrow."

Gerena says their lawyer, Joel E. Berman, has tried repeatedly for the last month to get Signature to return his phone calls. A certified letter from Berman requesting the return of the escrowed deposit came back. The lawyer keeps trying, but isn't getting anywhere, Gerena says.

"I keep going over there, to the site where my house was supposed to be built, and there's nothing there," he says. "I keep taking pictures with my cell-phone camera just so I have proof.

"There's no way that Signature didn't know that they were in trouble when we signed our contract and took our deposit," Gerena says. "Why did they do this?"