Experts are debating: are we in the midst of a bear market rally, or the start of a new bull market? Regardless of which side you're on, the recession will end one day and investors will need to start investing again. (Find out which financial instruments will protect you from bear market volatility, read Taking The Bite Out Of A Bear Market.)

With that in mind, it's worthwhile to take a look at companies that have land as a significant part of asset value. Although investors have thrown out any stocks that are even remotely related to real estate, some of these stocks are interesting plays that might warrant more research, as all are still trading well below 52-week highs.

The St. Joe Company (NYSE:JOE) is one of the best known land companies. It owns huge tracts of land in Florida, including some located near the Gulf Coast. The company reported a loss in the fourth quarter of 2008 and full year, due to write-downs of some of its projects, but the company has $115.5 million cash and only $49.6 million of debt as of the end of 2008. The stock peaked at close to $80 and is now in the low $20s.

Tejon Ranch Co. (NYSE:TRC) may be the largest landowner in California, and owns a 270,000-acre piece of land about an hour drive north of Los Angeles. The company develops the land for commercial, recreational, ore mineral production, and ranching and farming. The company has little debt and cash and marketable securities of approximately $55 million in the quarter ending December 31, 2008. (Learn more in Testing Balance Sheet Strength.)

Texas Pacific Land Trust (NYSE:TPL) owns more than 960,000 acres of land in Texas, but more importantly owns royalty interests in oil production in West Texas. The stock is selling at a 50% discount to its peak.

PICO Holdings (Nasdaq:PICO) is classified in some statistical services as an insurance company, but its insurance operations are in runoff mode and the company is not writing any new business. The investment case for Pico rides on its ownership of water assets out west in Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, California and Colorado. The company owns water rights on more than one million acres of land. The stock traded at nearly two times book value at the peak and now trades at just slightly more than what is a vastly understated book value.

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One extremely interesting play is Gyrodyne (Nasdaq:GYRO), a microcap company that owns property in Upstate New York, and other areas. Several years ago, it had some of its property seized by New York State through an eminent domain process. The company believed its land value was vastly understated by the state and is suing for the difference. The difference between the two appraisals is $98.7 million plus interest for four years, and the case goes to trial in August, 2009. While it is always difficult to evaluate the outcome of litigation, the amount involved dwarfs the company's market capitalization of only $31 million.

The Bottom Line
Land companies are a good place to start looking for bargains in the market, as most investors still consider them to be toxic due to their peripheral connection to real estate, but each one should considered on its own investment merits.

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