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Finally, some respect.

While management at home improvement retailer


(LOW) - Get Lowe's Companies Inc. Report

, based in Wilkesboro, N.C., was once dismissed by an analyst as a "bunch of Southern hicks," investors have finally latched on to the company.

This year the stock has been the overwhelming favorite of investors hoping to cash in on the home fix-it fad, with its shares up about 45%. Its much larger rival,

Home Depot

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, meanwhile, has seen its shares decline about 10% over the same time period.

Yet it is far from too late to jump aboard Lowe's.

Despite its performance this year, the stock is still cheaper than Home Depot's. Lowe's stock trades at about 28 times this year's estimated earnings, compared with nearly 34 times for Home Depot. Both have matching five-year annual earnings growth projections of 20%.

Not only is Lowe's cheaper, in many ways its fundamentals are more attractive as well. For example, despite the jittery consumer economy, Lowe's reported a 17% jump in earnings per share in its most recent quarter, compared with an 8% jump for Home Depot. Its same-store sales, which gauge activity in stores open at least a year, were up 1.7%, compared with 1% for Home Depot.

While some brokerages already have been recommending that investors switch out of Home Depot and pump money into Lowe's, institutional investors' attraction to Lowe's may have only begun. One catalyst for the stock over the next few years will be its aggressive expansion into large metropolitan markets in California, the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, the areas where most of the nation's money managers live.

And while the economy may continue to weaken, Lowe's could be in a better position to weather a downturn. For example, it uses distribution centers to get its goods to market, a cheaper method than Home Depot's preference of shipping directly to stores.

The bottom line is that while no one in their right mind would write off Home Depot as an attractive long-term investment, it appears that Lowe's is the better investment right now.

In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Tim Arango doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Arango welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to