From his wide-rimmed cowboy hat to his roper boots, Mike Castleman fits moviedom’s image of the lanky Texas rancher. On a recent March evening, Castleman is feeding cattle biscuits to his two pet longhorn steers, Big Buddy and Little Buddy, on his 460-acre Bar Ten Creek Ranch in Dripping Springs, a hamlet outside Austin in the Texas Hill Country. The spread is a medley of meandering streams, craggy cliffs, and centuries-old oaks. But even in this pastoral setting, his mind keeps returning to a subject he knows as well as any expert around: the housing market. “I’m a dirt-road economist who sees what’s happening on the ground, and in 35 years I’ve never seen a shortage of new construction like the one I’m seeing today,” declares Castleman, 70, now offering a biscuit to his miniature donkey Thumper. “The talking heads who are down on real estate will hate to hear this, but America needs to build a lot more houses. And in most markets the price of new homes is fixin’ to rise, not fall.”
Castleman is in a unique position to know. As the founder and CEO of a company called Metrostudy, he’s spent more than three decades tracking real-time data on the country’s inventory of new homes. Each quarter he dispatches 500 inspectors to literally drive through 45,000 subdivisions from Baltimore to Sacramento. The inspectors examine 5 million finished lots, one at a time, and record whether they contain a house that’s under construction, one that’s finished and for sale, or a home that’s sold. Metrostudy covers 19 states, or around 65% of the U.S. housing market, including all the ones hardest hit by the crash: Florida, California, Arizona, and Nevada. The company’s client list includes virtually every major homebuilder and bank — from Pulte (PHM) and KB Home (KBH) to Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo (WFC).