The nation's home ownership rate fell for the seventh year in a row, nearly touching levels unseen in 14 years. U.S. home ownership in the fourth quarter of 2011 dropped 0.5% from the year-ago period to 66%, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released Tuesday. The rate hasn't dropped that low since 1997 when it was 65.7%. Since then, it steadily rose until 2005, reaching 69%. Vacant units that were held off market comprised 5.4% of the total housing stock. Of these units, 1.7% were for occasional use, 1% were temporarily occupied by persons with a usual residence elsewhere, and 2.7% were vacant for a variety of other reasons. The homeowner vacancy rate fell 0.4% points to 2.3% in the fourth quarter from the year-ago period and 0.1% lower than the previous quarter. In that same period, the vacancy rate in rental housing held steady at 9.4% and fell 0.4% from the previous quarter. The vacancy drop was paralleled by a 2.3% decrease in vacant units held off the market. The fell from 7.3 million units in fourth quarter 2010 to 7.2 million in fourth quarter 2011. Markets across the country are bulging with a shadow inventory of millions of underlying delinquent or already foreclosed mortgages, according to Lender Processing Services (LPS) data. About 86.1% of housing units in the fourth quarter were occupied and 13.9% were vacant. Owner-occupied housing units made up 56.9% of total housing units, while renter-occupied units made up 29.3% of the inventory in the quarter. "The share of Americans who are willing and able to own their own home is still falling," analysts at Capital Economics said. "The flipside is more households in the rented sector and fewer properties lacking tenants. This is helping to drive rents, and therefore landlords’ returns, higher." Click on the image below to see U.S. home ownership rates since 1995. Write to Justin T. Hilley. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHilley.