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Homebuilders Add New Wing to Housing Crisis

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With demand down, rise of housing starts could damage industry's future.

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It appears even the embattled homebuilding industry is getting rosy-eyed, finding enough "green shoots" of economic recovery to stick their shovels back into the ground.

In May, US builders broke ground on 17.2% more projects than in April, far exceeding analysts' expectations. Work on new apartment buildings leaped, while single-family starts continued what's now become a 3-month rally.

Although the aggregate figure is still well off last year's rate, economists are breathing a sigh of relief that the worst of the housing market swoon could be behind us. Skeptics, however, are quick to point out that any recovery could be muted, as high levels of inventory, a weak labor market, and mortgage rates that just won't seem to stay down, could forestall any recovery.

As Kenneth Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, told the New York Times, "There's a real possibility [housing starts] will just stall at a low level. If the recent jump in interest rates is sustained, that could choke off buyer enthusiasm for new homes."

For nearly 4 years, the business of building and selling homes has been, in a word, lousy. As home prices tumbled, the likes of KB Home (KBH), Toll Brothers (TOL) and Lennar (LEN) slashed prices, offered generous incentives, and otherwise bent over backwards to unload inventory. Building all but stalled, jacking up unemployment -- particularly in exurbs and sprawling communities whose economies were largely based on the construction trade. An industry that grew fat during the boom was forced to slim down, lay off workers, and hibernate, while the market's violent correction ran its course.

And although a host of small builders have closed up shop, to date, no major US homebuilder has gone under. Consolidation, too, has been scant. The only merger of note was Pulte Home's (PHM) purchase of Centex (CTX), a marriage that, once consummated, will create the country's largest builder.

The outlook for those builders that remain -- builders that are bleeding cash while pleading with creditors to extend loan terms and waive busted covenants -- is bleak. Last week, the National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo Builder Sentiment Survey ticked down after rising far more than expected the month before. Higher interest rates are mostly to blame, as the specter of bigger monthly payments is quelling optimism that the housing market is on the mend.

The reality -- an unfortunate one for builders and their employees -- is that for the foreseeable future, their services aren't needed in this country; we have too many homes as it is. Demand for new ones remains weak as communities just a decade old slip into disrepair, and shoddy craftsmanship and half-finished developments scare off prospective buyers.

Builders are also fouling up the nascent housing "recovery" by turning recently completed condominium units into rentals. Even as demand wanes thanks to job losses and tighter budgets, rental inventory is rising. Rents, as a result, are falling. This is great news for tenants, eager to jump on affordable apartments, but bad news for landlords and even homeowners.

One of the most popular arguments posited by housing-market-bottom callers is that in some of the hardest hit areas, prices have gotten so low that investors can scoop up cheap homes and rent them for an attractive return. What they neglect to mention, however, is that this sort of market-clearing activity also increases the supply of rental units, further pressuring home prices. Even in the worst, most washed-out areas, a bottom remains elusive.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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