Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide if Aqua America (NYSE: WTR) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.

Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure a company is able to turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Aqua America.

Factor What We Want to See Actual Pass or Fail?
Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% 7.9% Fail
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% 7.9% Fail
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 61.5% Pass
  Net Margin > 15% 17% Pass
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 134.6% Fail
  Current Ratio > 1.3 0.72 Fail
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 11% Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 25.85 Fail
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 2.6% Pass
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% 8.3% Fail
  Total Score   3 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

With just three points, Aqua America doesn't look perfect. But in a world that gets thirstier every moment, even a boring-looking water utility could get exciting in a hurry.

Aqua is a regulated utility that provides water and wastewater services in the eastern U.S., primarily Pennsylvania. Its long-term strategy has been to buy up private and municipal water systems and then benefit from its efficiencies of scale. The company has bought out more than 200 acquisitions since 1995 and continued its buying binge last year.

The water-rich East may seem like a strange place to make money in water. Many focus on water-starved areas in the West, where California Water Service (NYSE: CWT) and American States Water (NYSE: AWR) have a strong presence. But Aqua has a huge cost advantage over those competitors, and it shows up clearly in its attractive net margins. Even though Aqua's return on equity doesn't meet our threshold, neither its Western competitors nor direct peer American Water Works (NYSE: AWK) can match it.

In addition, although Aqua's dividend doesn't lead the bunch, the company has grown its payout significantly in recent years. Again, although 8% dividend growth doesn't meet our 10% test, it's still good to see.

Aqua America faces the typical challenges of most utilities, including high debt levels and slow growth. But if you think water is only going to get more important to the U.S. economy, Aqua deserves some of your attention.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.