“Within a year or so, residential housing problems should largely be behind us,” Buffett wrote Feb. 27 in his annual letter to shareholders of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. “Prices will remain far below ‘bubble’ levels, of course, but for every seller or lender hurt by this there will be a buyer who benefits.”
The worst housing decline since the Great Depression has left one in five U.S. mortgage holders owing more than their houses are worth. Record foreclosures last year flooded a real estate market already glutted with unsold property, causing new construction to fall to the lowest in at least 50 years. The fall in homebuilding is the only fix unless the U.S. decides to “blow up a lot of houses,” Buffett joked.
“People thought it was good news a few years back when housing starts — the supply side of the picture — were running about two million annually,” said Buffett, the chairman and chief executive officer of Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire. “But household formations — the demand side –only amounted to about 1.2 million.”
Berkshire, which owns a real-estate brokerage, a business that constructs pre-fabricated houses and units that make products used in homebuilding, has suffered amid the slump. Profit at Clayton Homes, the pre-fab housing business, fell about 9 percent to $187 million before taxes, while earnings at carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries fell 30 percent.