I don't know anyone in their right mind who would attempt predicting the timing of a housing turnaround.

If I were to buy into shares of any homebuilder today -- which I definitely am not inclined to do -- I'd want a couple of things. My first concern would be the company's staying power, best represented by a strong balance sheet.

In this case, I'm going to rely on the relationship of the amount of debt to the value of the equity, such that the farther below 1.00 the debt/equity number comes out, the generally stronger the company's financial position -- and presumably its staying power. It can be a little dicey with builders, assuming the write-downs have kept the asset quality and the true value of the equity realistic.

Secondly, I like to pick up a meaningful dividend yield while I'm waiting for all the bad news to come out on the group and its mortgage company brethren.

With that in mind, let's look at how half a dozen big homebuilders stack up in satisfying these two very basic criteria:

Company

Debt/Equity

Forward Yield

Centex

1.07

0.80%

D.R. Horton

0.87

5.30%

Hovnanian

1.52

n/a

Lennar

0.61

4.00%

Pulte

0.71

1.70%

Toll Brothers

0.65

N/A

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Examining this breakout -- and recognizing that there are other important considerations in analyzing relative strength, including management competence, geographic mix, etc. -- I immediately discard Centex (NYSE:CTX) and Hovnanian (NYSE:HOV) as being too highly leveraged. And if I hadn't already punted Hovnanian, I'd do so, along with Toll (NYSE:TOL), for not keeping me happy with at least a minimal dividend while I wait for things to improve.

Pulte's (NYSE:PHM) dividend doesn't excite me, so I probably wouldn't rush out to buy that one. And D.R. Horton's (NYSE:DHI) debt-to-equity ratio is a tad too high for my blood, probably resulting in its elimination, even in the face of the highest dividend yield. That leaves only Lennar (NYSE:LEN) standing after our admittedly very basic analysis.

This isn't an endorsement of Lennar. Any analysis that would lead me to place a buy order on the company would involve perhaps dozens of quantitative and qualitative criteria not included here.

Beyond that, Fools should keep in mind that there can be tens of thousand of ready homebuyers and scores of builders ready to accommodate them, but unless and until our nation's disastrous mortgage situation is cleaned up and made more functional, the housing picture will remain in disarray.

So, Fools, there's probably no harm in initiating analysis of which builder or builders might ultimately make the most sense to you. But be sure to do your own homework first.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith has a house, a mortgage, and not a share of any of the companies mentioned above. He welcomes your questions or comments. The Fool has a structurally sound disclosure policy.