For more than a year, I’ve been a huge bear on housing. From the moment the credit-crisis storm began to form, I’ve been shouting in my usual unhinged way about just how bad the devastation would be, and carrying on about how anyone who bought a home in this environment would lose money immediately. At various points along the way, my house-hating judgment has been questioned, but I’d say I’ve been vindicated by the relentless decline in home values we’ve seen, the worst since the Great Depression. Even here, in our so-called real-estate-superstar city, prices may not have fallen, but the rate of acceleration has started to soften.
These days, I don’t know a soul who hasn’t jumped on the real-estate-is-an-awful-investment bandwagon. When I interview the once-rabid bulls on housing—those who make their livelihood building and selling homes, like Bob Toll, the CEO of the best home builder in America, Toll Brothers—I get grim predictions of nary a turn in sight. When I pressed Toll recently as to whether he sees any light at the end of the tunnel, he quickly answered yes: “The light of an oncoming train!”
Well, I now have another contrarian point of view to proffer: The converted bears, as well as the panicked sellers desperate to bail out and nervous buyers afraid to jump in, will be dead wrong nine months from now, when housing prices bottom. In fact, I’ll call the precise date of the housing-market turnaround. It will begin on June 30, 2009.
Let me give you ten reasons why everyone who now thinks there’s no end in sight to weakening home prices will look like a fool in nine months and will miss the best opportunity to buy since the 1989–1991 real-estate crash.
1. Two years ago, we were building twice as many homes as in 2008, and the decline in new-home building is now accelerating. At this pace, we could see new-home construction fall an additional 25 percent, back to levels last seen when we had 60 million fewer people living in this country. By next June we won’t be building enough homes to accommodate demand, and the gap between supply and demand won’t be made up by unsold inventory.
2. The housing bears seem to forget that Congress passed a bill authorizing $300 billion in FHA loans, which give troubled homeowners a fighting chance to pay their mortgages or get current on them. By nine months from now, the FHA will have taken millions in terrible floating-rate loans with high interest rates and turned them into 30-year mortgages with much lower rates. That’s going to reduce the number of foreclosed homes, and the supply of available homes, dramatically.
3. Bargains! Prices have already come down to the point where there are real values, and by June of next year, I believe real-estate prices will have fallen 25 percent nationwide from their previous highs, with some of the hardest-hit areas of the country down as much as 50 percent. At those price levels, homes will seem irresistible to the many millions of potential buyers who have stayed on the sidelines.
4. The last holdout area, New York, is nearing its bottom. The Wall Street brokerage houses will let employees know their bonus situations—or lack thereof—next month. Look for a further softening of prices in the city and even more so in the Hamptons, as hiring vanishes and Wall Street payrolls contract drastically. When the last areas fall, the bottoming process begins in earnest. By next June, Wall Street, and its power to drive down home prices, won’t hurt us anymore.
5. Right now, mortgages are expensive relative to their historical benchmark, the 30-year Treasury note. By next summer, I believe that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be nationalized to shore up their flimsy capital foundations. Once the loans that Fannie and Freddie repackaged are explicitly guaranteed by the government, they’ll become the world’s best investments, as they’ll offer much higher yields than Treasury notes, with no more risk. That will cause a steep decline in mortgage rates, making it easier to borrow money and buy a home.
6. Come June, the bulk of the reckless 2-and-28 loans—the ones with the low teaser rates for the first two years that sucked people in and then reset at much higher rates, dragging people under—will have moved through the system. These loans have been the biggest source of foreclosed property, so the rate of foreclosures should decline sharply once those loans are off the books, tightening supply and soothing anxious buyers’ nerves.
7. We may not think of ourselves this way, but we are still a growing nation: Four million babies are born each year in this country, vastly exceeding the nation’s death rate. Household formation, meanwhile, has held steady at about 800,000 a year. Families have been camped in their apartments or crowding in with their in-laws for some time now. That pent-up demand is bound to find expression and put upward pressure on prices, as credit again becomes easier to get.
8. Immigration. It doesn’t matter who gets elected, John McCain or Barack Obama. Both are much more immigrant-friendly than George Bush. Before W., we could reliably anticipate about 1 million illegal immigrants arriving each year, but that number’s gotten a big haircut, in part explaining why Florida, Arizona, and California have been particularly hard hit by excess home inventory. Look for that to change, triggering an influx of new immigrants, and home buyers, starting on Inauguration Day and building as we head into mid-2009.
9. The biggest problem areas are now restricted to those three states—Florida, Arizona, and California. The rest of the country has begun to stabilize or is deteriorating at a slower pace than six months ago. The most problematic markets have been cordoned off, limiting the collateral damage.
10. Finally, the absolute worst areas, those with the highest foreclosures, like Bradenton, Florida, and the Central Valley of California, bottomed this summer. The first to fall are the first to return. If they’re headed upward, the rest of the country will follow.
You can see these ten reasons playing out in the stock market, as the stocks of the major home builders—Toll, Centex, KB Homes, D.R. Horton, and Pulte Homes—flattened out in July and have been climbing since. These stocks peaked and started dropping nine months before the housing market began its tumble. If they predicted the top nine months before it happened, why shouldn’t we believe they’re forecasting the bottom nine months from now? The big home builders’ stock prices have already made major moves north, but I expect more upside from KB Home and Centex, as they still have lots of unsold homes in inventory and decent enough balance sheets to hold out until we reach the bottom. For those who want to roll the dice, I suggest buying Lennar, the home builder that pulled its horns in last, took a beating, and could be poised for a strong recovery. Toll’s already risen too much to recommend, and I’d steer clear of Hovnanian, which I think is still in too much trouble to touch right now.
Of all the areas I expect to boom next June, New York looks to be the most attractive because buyers from overseas will flock to it—even more than they already have. Just as the dollar appears to have bottomed, European real estate is starting to collapse. Foreigners will flee to this market as a safe haven, one that has already experienced the decline that they are just beginning to see. If you’re a seller, hold tight if you possibly can. You’re almost—almost—through the worst of the downslide. If you’re a buyer, use the time between now and next June to scout in which neighborhood you might want to buy. On June 29, call your broker.
James J. Cramer is co-founder of TheStreet.com. He often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns and articles, both before and after they are published, and the positions he takes may change at any time. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. To discuss or read previous columns, go to James J. Cramer’s page at nymag.com/cramer. Get all of James J. Cramer’s stock picks via e-mail, before he makes the trades, by subscribing to Action Alert Plus. A two-week trial subscription is available at thestreet.com/aaplus.