Forget stocks. Don’t bet on gold. After four years of plunging home prices, the most attractive asset class in America is housing.
From his wide-rimmed cowboy hat to his roper boots, Mike Castleman fits moviedom’s image of the lanky Texas rancher. On a recent March evening, Castleman is feeding cattle biscuits to his two pet longhorn steers, Big Buddy and Little Buddy, on his 460-acre Bar Ten Creek Ranch in Dripping Springs, a hamlet outside Austin in the Texas Hill Country. The spread is a medley of meandering streams, craggy cliffs, and centuries-old oaks. But even in this pastoral setting, his mind keeps returning to a subject he knows as well as any expert around: the housing market. “I’m a dirt-road economist who sees what’s happening on the ground, and in 35 years I’ve never seen a shortage of new construction like the one I’m seeing today,” declares Castleman, 70, now offering a biscuit to his miniature donkey Thumper. “The talking heads who are down on real estate will hate to hear this, but America needs to build a lot more houses. And in most markets the price of new homes is fixin’ to rise, not fall.”
Castleman is in a unique position to know. As the founder and CEO of a company called Metrostudy, he’s spent more than three decades tracking real-time data on the country’s inventory of new homes. Each quarter he dispatches 500 inspectors to literally drive through 45,000 subdivisions from Baltimore to Sacramento. The inspectors examine 5 million finished lots, one at a time, and record whether they contain a house that’s under construction, one that’s finished and for sale, or a home that’s sold. Metrostudy covers 19 states, or around 65% of the U.S. housing market, including all the ones hardest hit by the crash: Florida, California, Arizona, and Nevada. The company’s client list includes virtually every major homebuilder and bank — from Pulte (PHM) and KB Home (KBH) to Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo (WFC).
The key figures that Metrostudy collects, and that those clients prize, are the number of homes that are vacant and for sale in each city, and the number of months it takes to sell all of them. Together those figures measure inventory — the key metric in determining whether a market has a surplus or a shortage of new housing.
Today Castleman is witnessing an extraordinary reversal of the new-home glut that helped sink prices just a few years ago. In the 41 cities Metrostudy covers, a total of 78,000 houses are now either vacant and for sale, or under construction. That’s less than one-fourth of the 343,000 units in those two categories at the peak of the frenzy in mid-2006, and well below the level of a decade ago. “If we had anything like normal levels of buying, those houses would sell in 2½ months,” says Castleman. “We’d see an incredible shortage. And that’s where we’re heading.”
If all the noise you’re hearing about housing has you totally confused, join the crowd. One day you’ll read that owning a home has never been more affordable. The next day you’ll see news that housing starts have plunged to nearly their lowest level in half a century, as headlines announced in March. After four years of falling prices and surging foreclosures, it’s hard to know what to think. Even Robert Shiller and Karl Case can’t agree. The two economists, who together created the widely followed S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price indices, are right now offering sharply contrasting views of housing’s future. Shiller recently warned that the chances were high for a further double-digit drop in U.S. home prices. But in an interview with Fortune, Case took a far brighter view: “The lack of new home building is a huge help that a lot of people are ignoring,” says Case. “People think I’m crazy to be optimistic, but housing is looking like the little engine that could.”
To see where real estate is truly headed, it’s critical to keep your eye firmly on the fundamentals that, over time, always determine the course of prices and construction. During the last decade’s historic run-up in prices, Fortune repeatedly warned that things were moving too fast. In a cover story titled “Is the Housing Boom Over?,” this writer’s analysis found that the basic forces that govern the market — the cost of owning vs. renting and the level of new construction — were in bubble territory. Eventually reality set in, and prices plummeted. Our current view focuses on those same fundamentals — only now they’re pointing in the opposite direction.
So let’s state it simply and forcibly: Housing is back.