If the American home building industry were looking for a wry motto, it might be something like: "Been down so long it looks like up to me."
By many industry metrics, the picture is bleak, after five years of declines from the golden days of 2005. But it's safe to say the worst is over, and bloodied home builder stocks are crawling back to life.
The ISE Homebuilder Index is flat so far this year, but having tanked 75 percent from its 2007 peak, the pummeled barometer has a long way to go.
The industry is coming off its worst two years of housing starts since 1959 and its performance this year is year likely to be so-so, just like the stocks.
“There’s large excess supply that will take a few years to work through,” says Michael Widner, a homebuilding analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, who has been bearish on the sector for three years. “Things aren’t getting better rapidly, but they’re not getting worse either.”
Positive signs, even if of the modest kind, however, are evident throughout homebuilding industry.
Housing starts (single-and multi-family) in January hit an annual rate of 596,000, up 12.6 percent from December, but 1 percent below last January.
Widner expects new home starts to hit 700,000 this year, after 587,600 in 2010 and 554,000 in 2009.
The National Association of Home Builders is less optimistic at 673,000 units for 2011 with a big jump to 986,000 in 2012. Nevertheless, that's well below the 2-plus million peak rate of July 2005.