Throughout the 1990s, trying to find the next Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) was tantamount to coming across the investing world's Holy Grail. It was a noble quest, though a flawed one. From chat-room hypesters to newsletter writers pumping up speculative penny stocks, no hollow shell of a desperate plea was complete without proclaiming said stock to be "the next Microsoft."

It was amusing at the time. What's really hilarious is that some folks are still throwing around that expression today. Pull up a chart of good old Mr. Softy to see why it's so funny. It doesn't matter whether it's a one-year, three-year, or five-year chart. In all three cases, the stock is trading lower today. In fact, the company is trading where it was seven long years ago. That's why I have decided to refashion that overused -- and, lately, misused -- phrase into what it really means these days. The much ballyhooed "next Microsoft" is actually a company that was once a brilliant appreciator of capital but is about to embark on some lean times.

You know, the kind of stock that sports a great wall of trophies but has little game left in the tank. That doesn't mean that Microsoft is not an outstanding company -- it is. The problem is that the growth tear is over. The valuation is suspect. Investors should be adjusting their expectations accordingly.

I have three stocks that I believe might be "the next Microsoft," and I certainly don't expect you to buy my rather bleak prognostications on all of them. Maybe you have other ideas. Maybe we're about to turn that ridiculous phrase on its ear with its long-overdue comeuppance.

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX): Yes, Starbucks. I realize that I just made a new list of enemies with this one. Starbucks has been one of the great growth stock stories over the past decade. Expansion has taken the coffeehouse empire into more than 5,000 locations worldwide. In that same time, strong comps have only enhanced the company's unit growth. It's the perfect storm of retail growth. But there's the rub: Even with practically perfect performance, the stock is priced at 42 times this year's earnings -- and a still-rich 35 times next year's targets.

Everybody loves Starbucks. Existing stores make more and more with every passing year. That's beautiful. Yet even in today's idyllic climate, the company isn't growing anywhere nearly as quickly as its ambitious multiples. Perfection hasn't just been priced into the shares, it has been overpriced into the shares. Anything from declining trends in premium coffee consumption to smarter competition that has finally graduated to offering primo blends could unravel this otherwise beautiful company. Starbucks is a $20 billion company today, and I can see how it could remain a $20 billion company for a couple of more years, until its earnings catch up to its valuation.

D.R. Horton (NYSE:DHI): Homebuilders rock. They have been shooting stars in many portfolios over the past few years as dirt-cheap financing and real-estate investing have fueled a boost in unit sales at higher prices. No one sells more homes than D.R. Horton. It expects to place 50,000 new buyers under well-constructed roofs this year alone. All looks fine, right? Well, the cracks may not be evident for a few more quarters. After all, Horton closed out its June quarter with a $7 billion backlog in orders. (It had $10.8 billion in sales last fiscal year.) It just hiked its dividend by a whopping 50%.

My worries here aren't just for Horton. I'm concerned about most of the homebuilders. Interest rates are climbing. Homebuyers are turning to interest-only mortgages as a way to purchase homes they can't otherwise afford. This is not going to be pretty, folks. Now, there is no way Horton and the homebuilders will retreat to where they were just a few years ago. The companies have made major headway and are much healthier entities than they were back then. On the other hand, the share prices in the sector have ballooned to the point where investors seem to have amnesia when it comes to remembering the cyclical nature of this business.

That's why Horton and pals like Centex (NYSE:CTX) and Lennar (NYSE:LEN) have every reason to be worried once their backlog starts drying up. Lennar, with its base in the bubbling Florida real estate market, is even more susceptible. Urban renovation projects luring folks into new central high-rise buildings can't help the new projects out in the 'burbs, either.

eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY): The world's leading online marketplace received a stay of execution when its solid second-quarter results reversed the disappointing trend of slowing stateside auction growth. eBay's flagship business rose by 27% domestically, and that was clearly a headier step than the 20% gain it had produced during the first quarter. With eBay looking to earn no more than $0.78 a share this year, the stock is priced at just over 50 times earnings. That's no bargain.

Thankfully, eBay's overseas auction business and its PayPal online transaction service are growing quickly. In fact, the company's domestic marketplace revenues now make up just 39% of the sales mix at eBay.

However, there are a few things that worry me here. Rival auction sites are starting to act smarter, both here and abroad. Free-listing sites like Craigslist can be really disruptive -- even if eBay owns a minority stake there. Finally, the popularity of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) AdWords product, which allows merchants to reach interested consumers for pennies apiece, is starting to become a more cost-effective solution than the eBay auction process.

None of these things spell the end of Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation eBay. The company is put together too nicely for that to happen. But the valuation is out of whack. That, folks, is what triggered the first crack in Microsoft's armor when its shares peaked six summers ago. It can also happen to eBay.

Naturally, these are all still great companies. In the 1990s, Starbucks and eBay were actual holdings in the real-money Rule Breakers portfolio on our site. But today, the stocks attached to their names have seen better days. So go ahead and call them the next Microsofts. We now know that it's not something worth being anymore.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz thinks that the next "early" Microsoft may be the appropriate tweak to make that expression sexy again. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy .