U.S. Homeownership Falls to Lowest Since ’98

By Kathleen M. Howley – Jul 29, 2011 10:25 AM ET

The U.S. homeownership rate fell to the lowest level since 1998 in the second quarter as stricter lending standards blocked purchases and foreclosures forced people out of their residences.

The ownership rate through June was 65.9 percent, the lowest since the same rate 13 years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau said in a report today. The vacancy rate, the share of properties empty and for sale, was 2.5 percent, compared with 2.6 percent in the first quarter.

The strictest mortgage standards in more than a decade are disqualifying potential buyers while owners are being evicted from homes after falling behind on loan payments, said Wayne Yamano, director of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine,California. Home purchases fell in June to a 4.77 million annual pace, the National Association of Realtors said July 20. If housing demand remains at that level, 2011 would have the fewest sales since 1997.

“Tight underwriting standards and the lack of a down payment are keeping a big chunk of buyers out of the market and other people are being displaced by foreclosures,” Yamano said in an interview before the report. The ownership rate may tumble to about 62 percent by 2015, he said.

Conflicting data on sales and prices show the housing market that sparked the global recession continues to struggle. The number of contracts to purchase previously owned U.S. homes rose 2.4 percent in June, the Chicago-based Realtors’ group reported yesterday. Together with an 8.2 percent gain in the prior month, the index has almost erased an 11 percent plunge in April.

New-Home Sales

Also in June, sales of new U.S. homes reached a three-month low of 312,000 at an annual pace, the Commerce Department said July 26. Prices in 20 cities dropped 4.5 percent in the year ended May, the most since November 2009, according to a report issued the same day by S&P/Case-Shiller.

The homeownership rate declined from 66.4 percent in the first quarter. It reached a record high of 69.2 percent in the second and fourth quarters of 2004, a time when President George W. Bush promoted an “ownership society” to rally support for expanding mortgage financing to more Americans.

There were 18.7 million vacant homes in the second quarter, including foreclosures, residences for sale and vacation homes, compared with 18.9 million a year earlier, according to today’s Census Bureau report from Washington.

About 2 million of those empty homes were for sale, almost matching the number a year ago, according to the report. That may mean half of the 3.8 million homes for sale in June were vacant, though the Realtors’ group that reports inventory doesn’t track properties sold without a broker. When banks get rid of repossessed homes, they sometimes don’t use real estate agents.

— Editors: Christine Maurus, Andrew Blackman

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