With a handful of home builders reporting quarterly earnings this week, by Friday it should be clear just how dark the post tax-credit dog days of summer were for a big chunk of the large national builders.

Standard Pacific Homes (SPF), The Ryland Group (RYL), Meritage Homes (MTH), and M.D.C. Holdings, all have announced earnings releases later this week. M/I Homes (MHO) reported a loss of $0.11 a share on Monday morning.

Despite M/I's loss, it's possible there could be some pleasant surprises. In August Toll Brothers reported its first profit in nearly three years. And in September, Lennar surprised analysts too with a higher than expected, albeit modest, profit of $0.16 a share. There have been anecdotal tales of improvement following a dismal July as well. Of course improvement along the bottom is a relative thing as the market bounces off the rocks in the valley of the housing depression.

Standard Pacific

For Standard Pacific Homes not losing money has become a short-term goal. And it has hovered right at breaking even, bouncing back and forth between losing a little and making a little profit over the past four quarters. It managed to make four cents a share in its quarter that ended June 30.

Standard Pacific is scheduled to release earnings on Tuesday Oct 26 and a hold a call with analysts on Wednesday. The analysts' estimated earnings consensus is for the company to lose a penny during the quarter with the lowest earnings estimate at -$0.02 and the highest at $0.01. Orders at the end of June were down 38% year-over-year so earnings will be challenging.

To watch: Besides earnings numbers, analysts will be listening to hear how much and what land the company bought over the quarter. Standard Pacific's CEO Ken Campbell has said the company will be taking advantage of the depressed land market to find bargain parcels for growth after the downturn. Last quarter Campbell said the company would spend between $300- and $400-million.

Meritage Homes

Meritage has been profitable for the last three quarters and CEO Hilton's goal is to have a profitable 2010. But posting a profit for its quarter ended Sept 30 is going to be difficult, even Hilton said last quarter.

By the end of June the company's second-quarter orders had fallen precipitously post-tax credit, when the company had beefed up on specs to close a remarkable 1,207 homes in the quarter, up 36% from the same quarter a year earlier.

Meritage releases earnings after market close on Wednesday, Oct. 27 and scheduled a call for Thursday.

Analysts' earnings estimates are fairly widely Consensus is a loss of $0.07 cents a share with the highest earnings estimate at again of $0.06 a share and the lowest a loss of $0.46 a share. But the company has regularly surprised analysts in the past year, improving its gross margins tidily along with its sales.

To watch: The company's absorption rates in its California and Florida markets have helped the it with profitability since its main market, Texas, tends to yield lower margins. But California and Florida, anecdotally, remained challenged in late summer.

Also, the company's progress at moving from legacy to new lower-cost lots will be an interest point as it's been cited as key to profitability for the company. At the end of June it had contracted for more than 8,800 new lots since the beginning of 2009.

The Ryland Group

Ryland has cracked the profitability ceiling once in the past four quarters and analysts aren't expecting it to do it again in its Q3 earnings release Wednesday after market close.

Average earnings estimates are a loss of $0.27 a share with the highest most optimistic estimate predicting a gain of $0.03 a share and the lowest expecting a loss of $0.61 a share.

The company has been struggling with increasing community count fast enough to make up for close-outs. Last quarter it managed to open 23 and close 19, a victory toward stopping the erosion and speeding up the opening of communities with lower-cost land that will render margins between 400 and 600 basis points higher than the legacy land..

To watch: Community count increases and potential increased incentives to boost sales. Last quarter CEO Larry Nicholson said the company had been able to hold the line on increasing incentives, as had other builders. At the same time he hinted that might easily change if sales continued to be sluggish. "I believe there will be some pricing pressure in the near term if sales don't pick up," he said.

M.D.C. Holdings

None of the analysts is expecting the Denver, Co.-based M.D.C. Holdings to log a profit on Friday when it reports its earnings, despite the fact that the builder has been able to narrow its losses over the past year, even posting an unexpected profit of $2.68 a share in its quarter ending Dec. 2009.

The average earnings estimate for M.D.C.'s third-quarter earnings is a loss of $0.31 a share with a high estimate of a loss of $0.11 a share and a low estimate of -$0.49.

No matter its losses, M.D.C. has a healthy war chest of $1.6 billion at the end of June to sustain itself during the downturn.

To watch: Analysts who asked why M.D.C. didn't use some of its savings to buy down stock last quarter were met with suggestions by CEO Larry Mizel that he had other uses in mind.

"We expect to use the resources we have in our business and this is a very opportunistic time in this industry and we will not miss any opportunity," he said then.

Could that opportunity include moving into the distressed asset market like both Toll Brothers and Lennar have?

"I think we have always had an open mind," Mizel said.