(Reuters) - Lennar Corp's (LEN.N) posted quarterly profit growth that recalled the go-go years of the housing boom, but analysts saw possible problems ahead for the homebuilder as its shares fell.
Five years after the housing bubble burst, low interest rates and rising rents are finally pushing many consumers to buy homes. Lennar said on Monday customer orders for new homes grew 44 percent to 4,198 homes, the sixth straight quarter of growth.
But there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about the recovery, analysts said. The weak employment market and low salary growth are preventing many Americans from paying more for housing. Mortgages are still difficult to get. And nearly half of all homeowners either owe more than their home is worth or do not have the money for a down payment, even if they sold their current house.
Lennar's shares, which have almost doubled in value this year, closed down 1.4 percent, or 55 cents, to end the day at $36.96 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Lennar's chief executive said he was optimistic about the future for the sector, but described the market in measured terms.
"The housing depression was a national phenomenon; the housing recovery is very local," CEO Stuart Miller said on a earnings call with analysts.
The Miami-based company's third-quarter results were among the best since the housing crash. Revenue from home sales rose 33 percent. Total revenue jumped 34 percent to $1.10 billion - the highest in nearly four years.
But it is that very growth that has some analysts wondering how much longer the home builder rise can last, and whether the rally is really more of a bubble. The broader S&P 1500 Homebuilding Sub-Industry Index .15GSPHOME has almost tripled since touching a year-low in October.
Any hint of deceleration, analysts say, would throw the sector into a tailspin.
"I can't find a home builder that's actually not overvalued," says FBN Securities analyst Joel Locker, who says the stocks are 60 percent overvalued based on a blend of adjusted price/book valuations and 2013 earnings per share estimates.
Lennar's profit was $87.1 million, or 40 cents a share, compared with $20.7 million, or 11 cents a share in the same quarter last year.
Analysts on average expected earnings of 28 cents per share, excluding one-time items, on revenue of $1.05 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Lennar's results reflect strong housing demand. Average selling prices rose 4 percent, to $258,000.
Those sales reflect the fact that there has never been a better time to buy a home. Mortgage rates and home prices are at such historic lows that houses are now the most affordable they've been since 1970. That's not to mention that in most major cities, it's actually more expensive to rent than to own, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting.
"As long as the macro can hold up, I think this rally can continue for the next two to three quarters fairly easily," said Williams Financial Research analyst David N. Williams.
Lennar's order book, equal to $1.15 billion of sales, is a positive indicator. Lennar does not book revenue until a sales closes.
Gross margins rose 2.1 percentage points to 23.2 percent, with Lennar selling homes with fewer incentives at steeper prices in higher-margin communities.
Lennar's results followed KB Home's (KBH.N) report on Friday that showed a large backlog of demand for the company's homes.
(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)