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Homebuilding Strong, but Housing Shaky

The unexpected surge in new housing construction may have helped boost stocks Tuesday, but some analysts say neither investors nor homebuyers should be too encouraged by the news.

U.S. home building climbed to the highest level in 19 months during November and construction permits grew, according to data released this morning by the Commerce Department. Home construction in November rose 9.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 685,000 from October. Investors reacted favorably to the news as the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 337 points – or 2.8% — erasing Monday’s losses; the index is now up over 4% since the start of the year.

This sounds promising, but housing experts warn that since most of the increase in housing starts comes from the construction of rental apartment units, the numbers don’t necessarily indicate a turnaround in the overall housing market — or for that matter, the U.S. economy.

It remains a market for long-term investors, not “house-flippers,” analysts say – especially in areas with a strong demand for rentals. “Buying into a market where you expect extensive foreclosures with related depressive effects could be problematical,” says Stuart A. Gabriel, director of UCLA’s Richard S. Ziman Center for Real Estate. “But there are tremendous opportunities in the marketplace for those who are credit worthy and can buy at a deeply discounted price.”

There are also ways to invest in this building boom without a mortgage, experts say. Some pros are advising their clients to invest in building stocks to take advantage of the rise in apartment construction. “Investors could buy shares of homebuilders that specialize in starter homes in up-and-coming areas,” says Charles Sizemore, a financial adviser in Dallas, Texas. He recommends DR Horton (DHI), “because it is large, diversified, and has a more sophisticated management than many smaller homebuilders,” and Ryland (RYL), “because of its focus on affordable homes in growing markets.”

Others suggest avoiding real estate entirely. “The last thing people need are more stocks or bonds or traditional investments,” says Wade Westhoff, a financial adviser based in Danville, Ca. “With almost every other investment you have the ability to sell it,” he says.


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