Amid Modest Housing Gains, Toll Brothers Ranked Top Homebuilder

by: Thomas Smicklas

Credit Suisse (NYSE:CS) has issued its time-tested monthly housing survey, which covers over 50 major real estate markets in the United States. Credit Suisse compiles survey results from boots-on-the-ground brokers who know their markets well. With this survey, after all data is put into the hopper, a score of 50 is historically average, with scores below 50 worse and over 50 better. The CS survey is my favorite housing tool. It is accurate, predictive and free of twisted jargon.

For December 2010, home buyer traffic was modestly higher -- still at a very weak level, but better than the previous few months. Brokers reported that buyers were brought into the market by a combination of negotiating a good deal and a fear that mortgage rates would continue to tick upwards (inflation tremors). On the downside, continued high stipulations for conventional mortgages have left even more buyers without a source to borrow funds.

Overall, the traffic index increased to 29.1 in December from 22.1 in November. Home prices were up marginally to 23.0 in December from 21.6 in November. Credit Suisse does not believe that there will be any meaningful price increase for homes in the spring, due to continued weak demand and a new wave of foreclosures slated to hit the markets. Credit Suisse also states the recent court mortgage documentation issue is apt to be resolved quickly.

Importantly, no markets showed abysmal traffic in December. Markets with the greatest improvement included Atlanta (to 33.0 from 19.0), Austin (to 39 from 23), Denver (to 35 from 12), Houston (to 41 from 26), New York (to 33 from 18) and Seattle (to 41 from 23).

The CS home index pertaining to buyer traffic, home price, buyer incentives, home listings and the time to sell a home remain well below average except for home listings (to 51.2 in December from 41.3 in November).

For investors interested in home builder stocks, an interesting part of the survey had brokers nationwide rank 12 prominent home builders in order of preference (quality, price, value). From worst to best:

12. KB Home (NYSE:KBH) 5%
11. Beazer Homes (NYSE:BZH) 2%
10. Hovnanian Ent. (NYSE:HOV) 5%
9. M.D.C. Holdings (NYSE:MDC) 8%
8. NVR, Inc. (NYSE:NVR) 10%
7. Ryland Group (NYSE:RYL) 10%
6. Meritage Homes (NYSE:MTH) 13%
5. Standard Pacific (SPF) 16%
4. Lennar Corp (NYSE:LEN) 17%
3. D.R. Horton (NYSE:DHI) 22%
2. PulteGroup (NYSE:PHM) 26%
1. Toll Brothers (NYSE:TOL) 29%