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Remember those headlines about the U.S. housing slump possibly nearing an end, heralding a turnaround in 2007? Well, forget about it. Three of the major homebuilders just checked in with reports showing that they are decidedly not on board with that view.

In financial releases on Nov. 7, Beazer Homes USA (BZH) and Toll Brothers (TOL) said their new orders had dropped by more than 50 percent, while both continue to grapple with rising cancellation rates. A third large builder, Hovnanian Enterprises (HOV), said after the market's close that it will slip into the red this quarter because of $300 million in charges from its real estate holdings.

Just a month ago, some thought the nadir had been attained with interest-rate cuts possible in 2007 and a reasonable case to be made that housing was on the brink of an upswing. A JPMorgan analysis sparked a one-day rally for the housing sector on Oct. 10 with a bullish report that suggested falling inventories would lead to better times next year.

Lots of cancellations

Not so fast, says Beazer CEO Ian McCarthy. "Most markets throughout the country continue to experience higher levels of resale home inventories, lower levels of demand for new homes, significant increases in cancellation rates, and considerably higher discounting," he said in a conference call with analysts.

Beazer said its fourth-quarter net income fell 44 percent, to $91.9 million, or $2.19 per diluted share, from $164.4 million, or $3.61 a share, in the same period of 2005. Revenue rose 4 percent, to $1.88 billion, from $1.81 billion, while new orders plummeted by 58 percent, to 2,064. Its gross margins slipped to 8 percent from just over 14 percent a year ago.

With the steep land-related charges, Red Bank [N.J.]-based Hovnanian expects to lose money in the fourth quarter, although it did not specify a figure. For the year, excluding charges, the company expects to earn $215 million to $255 million, or earnings per share of $4.85 to $5.25. New contracts for the quarter fell 36 percent, to 3,100, from the same period a year ago. The company\'s cancellation rate rose to 35 percent of gross contracts, up from 25 percent in the last quarter of 2005.

Healthy buyer traffic

"As we begin fiscal 2007, we are optimistic that some of our more challenging markets will begin to experience decreasing cancellations and an improved sales pace. However, we have not seen signs of such improvement to date, despite reasonably healthy levels of buyer traffic at many of our communities," President and CEO Ara Hovnanian said in a statement. Company shares dipped 3.5 percent, to $28.01 in aftermarket trading, after finishing the regular session down 1.9 percent, at $29.04, on the New York Stock Exchange.

The picture is not much prettier at Toll, which issued some preliminary financial figures Nov. 7, including a 10 percent decline in revenue on homebuilding during the recent quarter. The company, which caters to a more affluent customer base and has resisted the steep discounting of some rivals, is struggling to keep customers signing – and not canceling – new home contracts. Horsham [Pa.]-based Toll now plans to deliver fewer homes than earlier forecasts specified. Quarterly revenue will come in at about $1.81 billion, down from $2.01 billion a year ago.

Toll also disclosed a record 585 contracts scuttled in the current quarter, amounting to 37 percent of the contracts signed in the fourth quarter, compared to 18 percent in the third quarter. But 25 percent of the current cancellations were in two markets, Orlando and Northern California. Toll's tally of new-order contracts was off by 55 percent from a year ago, to $709.6 million, from a quarterly record of $1.59 billion a year ago.

Surprising writedown

The company also surprised some analysts with a hefty writedown it will take for the value of land it owns or has options on: $50 million to $100 million. That will shave 18 cents to 36 cents per share from fourth-quarter income. Given such circumstances, Toll is expecting to deliver only 6,300 to 7,300 homes for fiscal year 2007, compared to previous guidance of 7,000 to 8,000 deliveries. Toll Brothers also plans to deliver between 1,500 and 1,800 homes in its first quarter of fiscal year 2007.

Beazer shares rose 0.3 percent, 13 cents, to close at $42.07 on the NYSE, while Toll shares dipped a penny, to $28.04.

Beazer CEO McCarthy says the Atlanta company doesn't anticipate any better fortunes in the first quarter, either. "We're not telling you today that there's any improvement in our business," he said.

No sign of the bottom

On Nov. 7, Standard & Poor's analyst William Mack cut his 2006 EPS estimate for Toll from $4.55 to $3.97, and that of next year from $3.75 to $2.30. He raised his share target by $2, to $30, based on a premium to a book value of $21 to $23 because of Toll's "strong track record." [S&P, like, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies.]

With 30-year mortgage rates down to 6.1 percent from a July high of 6.8 percent, unemployment benign, and lending rates stable, the luxury home builder's CEO, Bob Toll, expressed surprise Tuesday that he's seeing no sign of a bottom in the market. Toll, noting the economy's overall strength for his company's generally upscale customer, casts the situation as one of gloomy consumers "seeing the glass half-empty," consumed by the prospect of having a property's market value decline.

"We think it's a loss of confidence in the buyers," Toll said on a conference call with analysts. "A lack of demand is a fear of buying a home that two weeks later is going to be priced less."

Unhappy citizens

Toll also said he thinks a change in the country's political structure could help spark a recovery, citing disgruntled consumers staying on the sidelines when it comes to a major commitment such as a home purchase. "Basically, the country's unhappy, to say the least," he said. "Perhaps the unhappiness with the foreign affairs, with the domestic situation, with the election in general [is] spilling over into our market."

In a statement, Beazer Chief Financial Officer James O'Leary said the company had cut a quarter of its workforce, or 1,000 jobs, in September and October "in light of our reduced volume expectations" for next year. Toll also said his company had cut workers, but declined to offer specifics.

The news sent contracts in the composite housing futures index down in trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Nov. 7, with nine of the nation's largest housing markets showing futures declines.

But in a sign that housing data are always a mix of numbers, anecdotes, and worry, Toll concedes he may have a slightly pessimistic bent toward the whole market. "Up until recently, we were bumping along the bottom, I thought. I still think we're near the bottom," he said in response to an analyst puzzled about how bearish company officials sounded. "I may be more negative than I should be. We have a fairly decent interest here and this is our world, so perhaps we're characterizing it more negatively than we should."

Copyright © 2006 The McGraw-Hill Cos., Sonja Ryst. - WASHINGTON – Nov. 8, 2006

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