Spokane Journal of Business

Real estate recovery provides opportunity for investors

It's best to buy into sector before any sort of boom starts to gain momentum

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For at least the past six years, there has been little positive said in most media outlets about the state of the overall real estate market-especially the residential sector. There has been good cause for much of that angst, but the past is past and investors need to look ahead. It's my firm belief that today, there should be no doubt the housing market is already well into recovery.

I'm neither a real estate nor mortgage lending professional. However, in the daily course of working for my clients, I do constantly analyze and observe all segments of the economy. In that light, my intent with this piece is to provide you some factual reasons to support my stance on real estate and why it seems that now is a great time to take advantage of the opportunities in this space. I'll also be sharing the names of companies that, even though many of them have had nice moves from their lows, could continue to benefit from the resurgence.

I'm not exactly the only guy who feels the real estate market has turned for the better.

Recently, both Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co.-one of the largest mortgage lenders in the U.S.-and Stuart Miller, the CEO of Lennar Corp.-one of the country's largest home building companies-both stated publicly that the real estate market is recovering.

Additionally, Roger Altman, the former U.S. deputy treasury secretary and current chairman of Evercore, writing in Financial Times, said, "If (housing) is pushed down far enough and long enough, as it was in the post-2008 housing depression, it will eventually snap back to levels that exceed historical norms."

Further, referencing a Barclays report claiming home prices will exceed their 2006 peak by 2015, he commented, "That turn in the market is occurring now, and it should become a boom by 2015."

I think their respective positions give them a lot of credibility. But, no matter whom you are, simply saying it doesn't make it so.

Certainly, it has taken us a long time to take a big chunk out of the inventory caused by the overbuilding of the bubble period-to say nothing of the supply of homes from foreclosures, short sales, and the like. One effect of the inventory drawdown is that the good old supply-demand relation is now starting to be more normal. The lower inventory is translating into prices rising in most U.S. markets.

A couple of factors help explain this rise in the prices of existing homes. First, the lack of inventory on the market is pushing up prices, while demand is picking up for housing in general. Second, there now are fewer distressed sales and more sales of larger homes.

The major drag continues to be that home buyers still face tight credit conditions. Despite our historically low mortgage rates, these tight credit conditions help explain why the Commerce Department reported that all-cash transactions accounted for 27 percent of purchases in August. The usual share of cash sales is only about 10 percent. Those with cash have been able to take advantage of home prices that still remain low relative to fundamentals, such as rents and replacement costs. For them, it's been a great time to pick up bargains.

Nonetheless, existing home sales are coming in at the highest levels since mid-2010, when sales were pushed artificially high for a short period due to that misguided homebuyer tax credit. Through August, sales nationally were up 9.3 percent from the year-earlier period, while home prices were up 9.5 percent. Equally important, the higher sales rates and prices are helping to bring sellers back into the market.

This trend carries over to home builders as well. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the nation's new homebuilders, primarily due to big surges in new orders for homes, are more confident than they have been in more than six years. October was the eighth month in a row of improving confidence. I like this trend.

FirstTrust economist Brian Wesbury gives us some numbers to justify this ongoing increase in confidence. He has noted that, for the first time since the building boom of 2003 and 2004, the total number of homes that have been started but not yet finished has increased for the 12th straight month and is up 24 percent from a year ago. He added that, based on our population growth and scrappage, housing starts will continue to rise through 2016. In other words, this homebuilding recovery is still young.

Investing in recovery

As any long-term investor in the stock market knows, it's usually best to get in before a boom, not once it's well under way. And while the homebuilder stocks have had nice gains during the past year, to suggest that they've run their course is probably premature, especially if you side with the gentlemen noted above.

Moreover, U.S. Commerce Depart-ment economists estimate that for every new house built, at least three new jobs are created. So, the benefits of the recovery aren't just with the shares of the homebuilders themselves. Following is a representative, not all-inclusive, list of companies in the sector from which you can perhaps build your own fund of sorts.

Here, for instance, are a few of the larger homebuilders with their stock symbols for your review. They include D. R. Horton (DHI), KB Home (KBH), Lennar Corp. (LEN), and Toll Brothers Inc. (TOL).

If you want to consider that ripple effect from increasing construction activity, here is a list of companies in related fields. Drywall is provided through both Eagle Materials (EXP) and USG (USG). Flooring is available from Armstrong World Industries (AWI) and from Lumber Liquidators (LL). Countertops and backsplashes can be invested in with Caesarstone (CSTE). And let's not forget the laundry rooms with Whirlpool (WHR).

If you want to cast an ever wider net, you can consider big landowners like Forestar Group (FOR) and Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC). If you don't want individual issues, you may want to look at the SPDR Homebuilders ETF (XHB), which has totally recovered from its recession low and should also benefit from the continued recovery.

It's been my experience during my 40 years in helping clients manage their assets that the stock market is an effective leading indicator both of and for the economy-and the sectors within it. I believe that we are, as evidenced by both the market as a whole and the companies in the real estate sector, definitely continuing to evolve higher.

I firmly believe that the opportunities for you to profit from overall recovery, as well as in the real estate sector specifically, are real and in the making.

All you have to do is just decide if you believe that-and work on perfecting your laugh as you enter your bank.

  • Michael Maehl

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