The Two Faces of Housing: The Home Depot, Inc. (HD) and More

Two sides have formed in the current housing outlook. One says we’re set up for a big rebound. The other says, don’t hold your breath — housing could flatline for years.

Who is right?

Both could be, because they’re often talking about completely different topics.

The Home Depot, Inc. (NYSE:HD)I’ve written about this before, but it’s really important: Housing construction is on track for big rebound. At 780,000, housing starts last year were about a third below the rate of household formation. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates household formation will average 1.5 million through 2020. To meet those projections, new home construction needs to more than double from current levels (housing starts typically run slightly above household formation due to demolitions and structures lost to fires, natural disasters, etc.). This is where housing has the potential to boom. It can drive economic growth and revive the homebuilding sector, which can likely look forward to several years of double-digit earnings growth. NVR, Inc. (NYSE:NVR) is a quality homebuilder to keep an eye on. The Home Depot, Inc. (NYSE:HD) is another obvious name that will benefit.

Pushing along the rise in construction is low and dwindling levels of existing home inventory:

When inventory is as low as it is and construction has been as dead as it is, you need a period of above-average production to make up for the gap. As value investor Bill Miller recently told the Financial Times:

He [Miller] says there is a big structural demand for homes due to a growing population and a lack of building during the bust, when fewer than 500,000 new homes a year were built. The long-term trend is for 1.4m to 1.5m new homes a year, so to catch up “we probably need to get to 2m housing starts at some point in the next five years”.

Housing prices are a different story. Aside from a few regional discrepancies, it is almost never rational to expect real home price appreciation over time. Yale economist Robert Shiller’s data says it all:

From 1890 to 1990, nationwide real home prices actually declined slightly. Construction boomed during most of that period, mind you, but prior to the bubble last decade, rising real prices were almost never part of market dynamic. Expect more of that going forward, Shiller told me in an 2011 interview: