Updated with existing-home sales figures.

BOSTON (

TheStreet

) -- Real estate was ground zero for the economic crisis, and homebuilders' stocks bore the brunt as the credit bubble deflated.

To make matters worse, big builders including

Toll Brothers

(TOL) - Get Report

,

Pulte Homes

(PHB) - Get Report

,

KB Home

(KBH) - Get Report

and

D.R. Horton

(DHI) - Get Report

carry heavy exposure to Florida and California, states that were hammered harder than most by the recession.

Earnings were crushed as a result of the fallout in the housing market, but some investors think the industry is attractive again. Sales of

existing homes

climbed to 6.1 million units in October, the highest level since February 2007, with the help of tax credits for first-time buyers. It was a 10% jump from September and a 24% gain from a year earlier, according to new data from the National Association of Realtors.

It's been a mixed bag for homebuilder stocks. KB Home and D.R. Horton have bettered the S&P 500's 45% increase since early March, with gains of 69% and 171%, respectively. Pulte and Toll Brothers have lagged behind, rising less than 35%. Over the past three years, those stocks have dropped significantly, with KB Home and Pulte falling almost 75%.

Optimism about a stable footing in the real-estate market dimmed last week after the Commerce Department said housing starts fell 11% last month and D.R. Horton missed earnings estimates. And to think that the new-home tax credit is still in effect.

Potential homebuyers are gun shy as unemployment continues to rise and existing-home inventory swells, making them worry about their ability to sell if they got into financial trouble.

Analysts are predicting homebuilder losses will stretch into next year. They could very well extend beyond that, given the unpredictability of the rebound. As it stands now, expecting runaway profitability before 2012 is a pipe dream. Homebuilders enjoy the greatest success when they're able to sell into overheating markets at prices that dwarf costs. Since current real-estate markets resemble a frozen tundra more than a frying pan, patience is required if investors are looking for big gains.

Investors will benefit by investing in early-stage recovery bets, such as energy and business-infrastructure stocks, rather than homebuilders. Once the rebound is in full swing and some of the major economic problems facing the country, such as inflation and taxation, clear up, homebuilders could be a smart bet.

When the turn happens, builders that focus on so-called green building and sensibly sized homes will be the best investments. While people will no doubt gravitate toward extravagance at some point, the taste of the most recent crisis will likely still be in the mouths of many, leading them to scale back in the hopes of being more rational the next time around.

-- Reported by David MacDougall in Boston.

Prior to joining TheStreet.com Ratings, David MacDougall was an analyst at Cambridge Associates, an investment consulting firm, where he worked with private equity and venture capital funds. He graduated cum laude from Northeastern University with a bachelor's degree in finance and is a Level III CFA candidate.