Anything related to the word "housing" looks pretty ugly right now, as the recent rotten homebuilder sentiment data attests. In this environment, even the big names in home improvement aren't safe havens.

Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) first-quarter net income fell 5.7%, to $461 million, or $0.34 per share. Total revenue dipped 1.6%, to $12.2 billion, and same-store sales fell 3.3%.

Home Depot's (NYSE: HD) tidings were a bit better than Lowe's, but still reflect the same nasty sales climate. The company increased first-quarter net income by 12% to $812 million, or $0.50 per share. Sales dipped 0.2%, to $16.8 billion, and comps decreased 0.6%. In other words, Home Depot owed its increased profit to cost cutting, not stagnant sales.

Both retailers have floated that perennial favorite, the "bad weather" excuse, as a culprit for the lackluster quarterly sales. Even so, the ongoing problems in the broader housing market make Lowe's and Home Depot logical stocks to avoid.

Homebuyer tax credits were one of the few incentives to buy a home in recent years. Once those government-sponsored incentives expired, little other rational incentive existed, especially when prices have continued to depreciate in many markets. Clearly, this macro view doesn't suggest surging demand for home-improvement supplies, either.

Plus, when folks are spending an arm and a leg at the gas pump and the grocery store, dropping a ton of cash on home improvement probably isn't high on too many to-do lists.

In this confused environment, I'd avoid homebuilder stocks like Hovnanian (NYSE: HOV), Pulte Homes (NYSE: PHM), and KB Home (NYSE: KBH) to be safe. However, I believe home improvement retailers are just as dangerous for investors right now.

Furthermore, Lowe's trades at about 18 times trailing earnings, and Home Depot at 19 times earnings. Neither one looks like a compelling value given the ugly macro climate. If you don't mind flagging sales, Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT) got some problems, but it's also trading at just 12 times earnings. I think investors should avoid Wal-Mart until it pulls its act together, but unlike Lowe's and Home Depot, at least Wal-Mart's multiple suggests it might be cheap.

Should we take a chance on Home Depot and Lowe's, or wait until the housing data's better? Let me know in the comments box below.

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.