Here’s the real catalyst for a housing rebound

Author: Charles Sizemore
Covestor models: Sizemore Investment Letter and Tactical ETF

Last week, I announced to the world what a momentously bad investment I had just made.

Yes, dear reader, I was dragged kicking and screaming against my will into home ownership by my wife and two-year-old son. My days of enjoying my Saturday mornings as an urban yuppie, drinking freshly-ground French press coffee and reading the weekend edition of the Financial Times on the patio of my Dallas uptown high rise, are over. Instead, they are spent at the local Home Depot (HD) buying rope and tools to hang a tree swing.

Men who pound away on financial calculators for a living have no business being within 100 yards of a Home Depot. We don’t have the foggiest clue what we’re doing, and we end up spending small fortunes on tools we don’t need and have no idea how to use. And after buying it all, we generally abandon the project halfway through and end up paying a professional to redo it all.

I bring all of this up for an important reason. The housing market has a disproportionately large impact on the health of the economy. In addition to the obvious construction and mortgage finance industries that directly benefit from the construction and sale of homes, virtually every other industry benefits as well from an overall higher level of consumption.

When you own your dwelling, you tend to spend a lot more money on the things that go in it. This would include furniture, appliances, electronics, decorations and artwork, and — yes — even tree swings. Many of these purchases (though probably not the tree swings) are purchased on credit. Thus housing and credit booms go hand in hand.

Of course, this also works in reverse. The U.S. economy has been in the dumps since the bursting of the housing bubble, with consumer spending and retail sales growth tepid at best.

All of this is about to change, and the catalyst will not be another stimulus bill or quantitative easing. It will be demographics.

As a “thirty something” member of Generation X, I’m actually a little late to the homeownership party. Knowing full and well what a terrible “investment” a personal residence is, I put it off as long as I could until family considerations made further delay all but impossible. My generation is small relative to the one that came before it — the baby boomers — and the one that came after it — the echo boomers. And our impact (or lack thereof) on the housing market has already been made.

It is the echo boomers that should have property developers salivating. These children of the baby boomers, born in the 1980s and 1990s, form a generation even larger than that of their parents. And they are quickly entering their peak marriage and family formation years.

The settling down of the largest generation to date will create unprecedented demand for starter homes and rentals. Meanwhile, new supply has all but disappeared in the wake of the bust. New home construction hit its lowest levels on record last year, breaking the record lows of the year before and the year before.

It may seem absurd to talk about it, given the foreclosure backlog that still plagues the market, but in a few short years we may actually have a housing shortage, at least in the cities attracting these new families.

It’s too early for me to recommend that readers buy homebuilders based on these fundamentals, and in any event homebuilder stocks have already had a phenomenal run. The SPDR S&P Homebuilder ETF (XHB) has nearly doubled in less than six months, and homebuilders tend to be wildly volatile.

The best course of action would be to build a portfolio of entry-level rental properties. While your principle residence is a terrible investment (it’s a major drain on cash flow), rental properties are an entirely different story. If bought correctly and at reasonable prices, they generate a positive cash flow every month that is tax advantaged. Depreciation and other charges ensure that much (if not all) of your cash income is tax free. And real estate is a more reliable hedge against inflation than precious metals like gold or silver.

No less an authority than Warren Buffett would appear to agree. The Economist recently quoted the Oracle of Omaha as saying that he would buy “a couple hundred thousand” homes if it were practical for him to do so. Read The Economist’s “Holding back the spring.”

Investors without the patience or the bankroll to buy a portfolio of rental properties can settle for apartment REITs or for the stocks of companies that cater to a recovering housing markets, such as Home Depot or rival Lowe’s (LOW).

Oh, and about that tree swing. It took me four hours of cursing and swearing, but I finally got it hung properly. My son loves it.