Vacancy rates across the U.S. suggest more Americans are slowly coming back into the housing and rental markets, but at a very controlled and deliberate pace.

Rental vacancy rates in the U.S. slowly inched down to 8.6% in the first quarter of 2013, down 0.2 percentage points from the first quarter of 2012 and decreasing 0.1 percentage point from the last quarter, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

For homeowners, the vacancy rate was a much lower 2.1%, dropping 0.1 percentage point from the first quarter of 2012, but rising 0.2 percentage points from the last quarter.

It is important to note that these vacancy rates do not include units held off the market — those not for sale or rent. According to Trulia, homes held off the market now account for 54.5% of all year-round vacant units, remaining unchanged from 2012.

However, Trulia (TRLA) Chief Economist Jed Kolko notes that as prices continue to appreciate, some of these held-off market vacant units will come onto the market and improve the skin-and-bones inventory buyers are currently facing. 

Among regions, the rental vacancy was higher in the South, reaching 9.9%, and 9.5% in the Midwest. In the Northeast, the rental vacancy was at 7.2%, while the West saw a 6.9% vacancy rate. 

Homeowner vacancy rates in the South were 2.5%, 2.1% in the Midwest, 1.9% in the Northeast and 1.5% in the West. The West is the only region that dropped from one-year ago. 

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Dropping 0.4 percentage points from both the first quarter of 2012 and the rate last quarter, the homeownership rate stood at 65%.

Analysts at Capital Economics noted, "Some 14 months after the trough in house prices, the homeownership rate is still declining. In other words, although there are some signs that conventional, mortgage-dependent buyers are playing more of a role in the housing recovery, investors remain the dominant force behind the house price bounce-back."

According to Trulia’s Kolko, the homeownership rate is back to the 1996 level.

"Tight credit, tight for-sale inventory, the challenge of saving for a downpayment and more rental single-family supply all helped lower the homeownership rate," said Kolko. 

Trulia also adds that household formation slowed in the first quarter. The increase in households was 520,000 units in Q1 compared to one year earlier. That’s a drop from the six previous quarters, when household formation grew at a faster rate, notes Kolko, who says this is likely due to more young people being slow to form new households in the past year. 

In a report sent to HousingWire, Kolko writes, "The share of Millennials —18 to 34 year-olds — who headed their own household fell slightly from 37.1% in March 2012 to 37.0% in March 2013, according to Current Population Survey monthly data, after rising between 2011 and 2012."

mhopkins@housingwire.com