Home vacancy rate falls to pre-housing bubble levels

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 30, 2012 11:30am EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The home vacancy rate, which measures empty properties and those for sale, fell to the lowest level in seven years in the third quarter as demand for housing picked up and economic pressures eased.

The rate declined to 1.9 percent in the quarter from 2.1 percent in the previous three months, a level not seen since the third quarter of 2005, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

Home prices, which declined rapidly in 2006 and contributed to the country's recession, are edging up and helping spur economic growth. Improvements in the housing market are also boosting consumer confidence, as record low borrowing rates make buying more affordable.

U.S. single-family home prices rose 0.5 percent in August on a seasonally adjusted basis, marking the seventh straight month of increases, according to the S&P/Case Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas released on Tuesday.

The share of empty U.S. homes for rent held steady at 8.6 percent in the third quarter, matching the lowest level in more than a decade, the Commerce Department reported. That was down from 9.8 percent a year earlier.

The U.S. home ownership rate was unchanged from the second quarter, holding at 65.5 percent, but was down from 66.3 percent a year earlier. The U.S. home ownership rate peaked at 69.2 percent in July 2004.

"Even with the housing recovery well under way, the share of Americans who own their own home remains more or less at a 16-year low," said Paul Diggle, property economist at Capital Economics. This fact is a reminder that, to date, the recovery still owes a lot to investor demand."

Foreclosures and tight lending standards, coupled with a stubbornly high unemployment rate have pushed many would-be buyers into rental properties. (Reporting by Margaret Chadbourn; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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