The nation’s homeownership rate fell to 67.1 percent in the first quarter, a rate not seen since first-quarter 2000, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S Department of Commerce. The rate reached its peak in 2004, when it was at 69.2 percent for both the second and fourth quarters.

Also, the agencies reported that vacancy rates were largely unchanged in the first quarter compared to the previous quarter and the same quarter last year.

Regionally, the West saw the largest year-over-year decline in homeownership in the first quarter: from 62.8 percent to 61.9 percent. The Northeast, Midwest and South each saw changes of less than a percentage point to 64.4 percent, 70.9 percent and 69.2 percent, respectively.

Predictably, the likelihood that people will own their own home increases with age. While only 38.9 percent of those under 35 were homeowners, 80.6 percent of those 65 and older were.

Non-Hispanic whites had the highest homeownership rate, at 74.5 percent, while blacks had the lowest rate, at 45.6 percent. Hispanics had a rate of 48.5 percent, while Asians and mixed-race householders were combined for a 57.2 percent homeownership rate.

The vast majority, 82 percent, of households with a family income greater than or equal to the median, owned their own home, flat from the year before. Among those making less than the median, that rate was 52.2 percent, up from 51 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

Despite an abundance of distressed properties, vacancy rates for rental and owner-occupied units remained essentially flat in the first quarter.

"The first quarter in our area was about the same as the first quarter in 2009 both in our sales and from our rental department,"said Dick Fisher of Morro Bay Realty in California’s Central Coast.

"(It was) as though everyone was waiting to see what was going to happen," he added. As elsewhere around the country, housing activity — both sales and rentals — started to pick up in March, he said.

The homeowner vacancy rate, an estimated 2.6 percent, was essentially flat from both the first and last quarters of 2009. The rental vacancy rate, about 10.6 percent, also remained largely the same.

The overall vacancy rate for the first quarter was 14.5 percent, not significantly different from the 14.6 percent rate in the first quarter of 2009. The number of all housing units rose about 1 percent, to 130,873, between the two time periods. Units held off the market made up 5.6 percent of all housing stock, the report said.

"Vacancy rates seem to be fairly stable, but we are seeing significant incentives for pre-leasing and seeing stagnant rental prices in a market where (rent increases were) pretty typical," said Michelle DeRepentingy, a broker at Success Realty in Athens, Ga.

For both rentals and owner-occupied homes, vacancy rates were higher in cities than in suburban areas: 11.3 percent vs. 9.8 percent for rentals, respectively, and 3 percent vs. 2.4 percent for homeowner housing.

"I own a duplex in Sausalito, Calif. (outside of San Francisco). Both units recently came up for rent. While I only slightly raised the rent from what the previous tenants were paying, I got several immediate high-quality replacement tenant choices. For both units, I went from one tenant moving out to the next one moving in with zero vacancy," said David Faudman, founder of CleanOffer.com.

Only the rental vacancy rate in cities was statistically different from the first quarter of 2009 — up from 10.6 percent.

***

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