July 27, 2012 / 2:25 PM / 7 years ago

U.S. rental vacancy rate falls to lowest in decade

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The share of empty U.S. homes for rent fell to its lowest level in a decade during the second quarter, a troubling sign for many Americans whose budgets have been strained by rising rents.

A "for sale" sign is seen outside a home in New York June 19, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The residential rental vacancy rate declined to 8.6 percent from 8.8 percent in the January-March period, the Commerce Department said on Friday. The second-quarter reading was the lowest since 2002.

The tight rental market could keep pressure on rents despite general weakness in the economy.

The average asking rent actually edged down to $716 a month in the second quarter, $5 cheaper than in the prior three-month period. Still, second quarter asking rents were about 5 percent higher than a year earlier.

Five years after the housing bubble burst, the United States is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. Home prices have fallen a third from their peaks, but many Americans cannot benefit because they cannot get a mortgage.

With credit tight, many consumers have no choice but to rent. Others who can afford to buy are also renting, because they view real estate as a lousy investment. As demand has increased, rents in some cities have jumped by double-digit percentage rates.

However, economists do not believe the rental market is tightening enough to ignite inflation pressures.

Also, stronger demand for rental apartments is seen helping to stabilize the housing market as builders break more ground on multifamily housing projects.

In a positive sign for the housing market, the homeownership rate edged up to 65.5 percent in the second quarter from 65.4 percent in the prior period, the Commerce Department said.

The homeowner vacancy rate dropped to 2.1 percent, the lowest since the first quarter of 2006, from 2.2 percent in the first quarter.

The homeownership rate peaked at 69.4 percent in 2004 at the height of a housing market boom fueled by cheap credit.

Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Neil Stempleman

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