Guaranteed Rate Inc, a home loan company, opened shop in 2000 in Chicago with a single office. Now it is one of the 20 biggest U.S. mortgage lenders, with more than 140 offices.
Most of that growth has come in the last two years and Chief Executive Victor Ciardelli said in an interview he is not planning to slow down.
"We've hired over a thousand people over the last year and we're trying to hire a ton more," Ciardelli said.
Guaranteed Rate is one of scores of independent mortgage lenders and community banks pushing up through the rubble of the housing collapse, as profits rise amid improving demand for home loans for new purchases or mortgage refinancing.
They are winning business from banks such as Citigroup Inc or Bank of America Corp that have retrenched after the financial crisis.
The five biggest U.S. mortgage lenders controlled just 53.2 percent of the market last year, down from nearly two-thirds in 2010, Inside Mortgage Finance data shows.
As small lenders grow, that share could shrink to 40 percent of the $1.8 trillion mortgage market by 2014, a recent FBR Capital Markets report forecast.
The rise of smaller lenders is a boon for consumers. Several smaller lenders said lower costs, low interest rates and their faster processing times allowed them to be more aggressive on pricing than the bigger banks.
"When the big guys get backed up, they have a tendency to raise their price, to slow down volume. And that gives other lenders an opportunity, because the consumer thinks, 'Why would I pay an extra $100 a month,'" said Brian Hale, chief executive of Stearns Lending Inc.
Stearns, a home lender based in Santa Ana, California, saw originations increase 107 percent in 2012.
But the proliferation of lenders also comes with risks. While mortgage experts said underwriting standards are stricter now than in the years leading to the financial crisis, the rush into the sector raises the risk that regulators might not be able to police them effectively.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example, has unveiled new rules for underwriting standards, but the bureau that was formed in 2011 as part of financial reforms has yet to prove itself.
"The CFPB is a very new agency that has been building out its examination force. They've been doing a very good job of that, but nevertheless a lot of the examiners are relatively new," said Patricia McCoy, a financial-institutions law professor