Housing Is the Cheapest It’s Been in a Generation

In a recent Daily Reckoning column, “Buy a House…Then Buy Another” I told you about John Paulson, the billionaire hedge fund manager who switched from betting against housing to now telling people they should buy a house…or even two houses.

Bill Ackman, the successful hedge fund manager behind Pershing Square Capital Management, is another case in point. He, too, saw the housing bubble before it popped. He made a now famous argument as to why the stock of MBIA, which guaranteed the slop coming out of the mortgage factories during the bubble, was going to crumble. And it did, netting Ackman more than $1 billion. MBIA was, at the time, one of the five biggest financial institutions in the US.

But now, like Paulson, Ackman is bullish on US housing. He recently made a compelling case focused on five key areas. Let’s take another look at the case for housing and add more meat to the bones.

First, housing is cheaper now than it’s been in a generation. The median income is now 78% above what it takes to qualify for a fixed-rate loan on 80% of the median purchase price. Mix that with housing prices that are 30% off their peak nationally and low mortgage rates and you get a cocktail of affordable housing.

The second key part to the argument is to look at the number of forced sellers. As a buyer, it is more favorable to you if you buy from people who have to sell. Makes sense right?

In housing, about 30% of sellers are in foreclosure or approaching it. These are national figures, so in some markets, there are more forced sellers than others. “Buyers benefit when conventional sellers compete with distressed sales,” Ackman says. “Las Vegas is an extreme example, where distressed and nondistressed sale prices have nearly converged.”

Ultimately, this process is good for the home market. As Ackman points out, “Overpriced and overleveraged homes will be transitioned to new, stable owners at more reasonable prices and on more favorable financing terms.” From such stable bases, new bull markets are born.

Third, we look again at financing terms and costs. Blue chip companies don’t get the deal you get when you buy a home. You can borrow at about 5% fixed for up to 30 years, putting down only 20% (3% for FHA loans). You have no prepayment penalties – so you can, if rates fall, refinance. But if rates rise, you can sit tight. And you can deduct the interest from your taxes. It is a sweetheart deal.

Rates, by the way, haven’t been this low since the Freddie Mac survey began.

This also makes for a great inflation hedge. Housing, as an asset class, performed extremely well during the inflationary 1970s. Today’s borrowers have similar upside. Ackman demonstrates how even small price increases multiply the equity in your house, assuming conventional 80% financing and a 10-year holding period:

People who are skeptical of housing think prices won’t rise anytime soon. But as this exercise shows, you don’t need much of an increase. Even a 1% annual increase over a 10-year period gives you 2.7 times your money. Anything better and your upside soars!

So far, the case for housing is familiar and easy to grasp. Now we get to the fourth and fifth pieces of the argument, which clinch the case, in my view: the long-term supply and demand for housing. Let’s start with supply.

What can we say about the supply of houses in the US? There is a lot of it right now, which is what weighs down pricing. This is what creates the opportunity for buyers. But there is more. “Builders have sharply reduced their construction capacity, increasing lead times when the market does recover,” Ackman says. “It can take three-seven years to get land permitted in many of the more desirable markets.”

This means that we can’t turn on a switch and get a lot more houses. As with mining, it is important to consider how long it will take to bring new supply to the market. As investors, we want new supply to come slowly.

The number of housing starts is lower than at any time in at least the past 50 years. New construction is about half the long-term average. Again, good news for investors in housing, since this means that new supply is growing very slowly.

Now let’s turn to demand. Demand for new housing is depressed. Home ownership rates are back down to pre-bubble levels. But housing demand – based simply on demographic trends – should rise inexorably for years to come.

You take the growth in households – driven by population growth – and apply a home ownership rate. Demographically, the US is still a growing country. By 2030, there will be 370 million Americans. Even using the long-term average home ownership rate means we’ll need 1.1-1.2 million new single-family homes per year.

Here is another chart that puts supply and demand together and captures how depressed things are. The chart shows housing starts. The dotted line shows you projected annual demand of about 1.2 million homes per year. So you can see the big gap as the market digs into existing supply. At some point, housing starts will rebound. This could happen as early as this year…

The prime beneficiary of any rebound would be the homebuilders. There are several interesting possibilities in homebuilder stocks, such as Lennar (NYSE:LEN) or MDC Holdings (NYSE:MDC). I don’t think we need to rush to buy any of these just yet, but they are on the radar.

There will be other beneficiaries of a housing rebound, too. There are all those depressed building supply stocks. There are the many little local banks that finance housing. Each has been an area we’ve sought to avoid, but they have become promising fishing holes.

The risks seem low. We’ve already seen the bubble collapse. A second collapse is unlikely. The market is adjusting to a more normal level. All is to say that as contrarian as it seems, housing is now a good bet for the long term.

Paulson and Ackman – two great investors – made fortunes betting against housing, but now they’ve changed their views as the market changed. Maybe we should too.

By Chris Mayer

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1 Comment on Housing Is the Cheapest It’s Been in a Generation

  1. Cheap and getting cheaper… what potential buyers should keep an eye on are interest rates. The days of buying a home for capital gain are gone, at least for the next decade.

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