William J. Pulte built his first house in Detroit when he was just 18 and went on to launch Pulte Homes, expanding in the 1960s to Chicago and other cities and by 1995 becoming the nation’s largest home-builder.

Mr. Pulte died Wednesday at his home in Naples, Fla., according to his family. He was 85.

Mr. Pulte started what became Pulte Homes during the summer of 1950, when he and a few classmates from De La Salle Collegiate High School in Detroit built a five-room bungalow on Christy Street near Detroit’s airport. He began building it a week after his high school graduation and sold it for $10,000.

Mr. Pulte was an honors student and had a chance for a college scholarship but turned it down.

“I had made up my mind years before that building was going to be my life’s work,” he said in an interview with the Detroit Times. “I was too impatient to get started to go to college.”

Soon, he was building custom and mass-production houses throughout metro Detroit, oftenfor young families. In 1959, his business introduced its first subdivision, Concord Green in Bloomfield Township.

For years, the Pulte formula was “four bedrooms and a family room,” which the company repeated in thousands of houses.

Pulte Homes expanded beyond Michigan and went public in 1969. It continued to grow through expansion and acquisitions and made the Fortune 500 in 1999.

In 2010, Mr. Pulte retired from the business’s parent company, PulteGroup, as well as its board of directors.

Three years later — without any say from its founder — PulteGroup’s management made the surprise announcement it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta.

Bill Pulte, who remained the firm’s largest shareholder, later criticized the relocation,  saying it cost shareholders tens of millions of dollars but brought no apparent benefits. Under pressure from the elder Pulte, the chief executive who announced the move later resigned.

Today, PulteGroup is considered the third-largest homebuilder in the country, with 4,810 employees and $8.3 billion a year in home sales.

William Pulte is survived by his wife Karen Pulte, 13 children, 27 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

He anonymously donated tens of millions of dollars to charities throughout his lifetime. Family members plan to continue to manage his businesses and philanthropic efforts.

“We are all very sad that Bill has passed, but we take comfort in the fact that we have been planning this transition for some time now,” said his grandson, Bill Pulte.