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AUSTIN, TX-The turmoil of the capital markets and for-sale housing crash has impacted the rate of homeownership in the country. The US Census Bureau recently released its latest estimates of homeownership rates, which continue on a downward trend that began in 2005. The overall homeownership rate at the end of 2008 was 67.5 %, roughly the same level as in year-end 2000.

The decline in homeownership has been pretty evenly distributed across age and ethnic groups, notes Richard F. Moody, chief economist & director of research for Forward Capital LLC, the parent organization of Mission Residential. The locally based executive notes that in most cases, the deterioration over the past three years “have undone the gains in homeownership rates seen over the second half of the decade-long advance in homeownership that marked the 1995 to 2005 period.”

While economic prosperity did play a role in pushing the homeownership rate higher, the uptick had more to do with the lax capital markets, where most households generating an income could obtain a mortgage–however creative it was. Now those financing structures are coming back to haunt the industry as interest rates on adjustable-rate loans have reset.

Borrowers increasingly can’t keep up with mortgage payments and, in many cases, can’t qualify for a refinancing under the stricter underwriting criteria. In fact, the instances of defaults and foreclosures grew even before the credit markets collapsed, though that certainly didn’t help matters. Add to that the layoffs that have plagued most metro areas, and mortgage holders are in even greater distress.

Moody anticipates the homeownership rate will continue to fall through the rest of this year and into the next. As that figure falls to pre-2000 levels, “some portion of the gains in homeownership from 1995 to 2000 will be erased.”

Yet those former homeowners still need somewhere to live–and with the added demographic of new households being formed by young adults–it’s all a boon for the rental apartment market, which is seeing demand rise. Indeed, the ownership rate for households between the ages of 18 and 34 years old sunk to 40.3% from its peak of 43.6% in mid-2004. The current ownership rate for young households is below that of 2000, and closer to what it was in early 1995–38%.

Over the first half of this decade, 1.2 million young households–80% of which were under 30–entered the for-sale market. Conversely, just 350,000 young households became new renters. By the end of 2008, the number of owner-occupied housing units headed by 18-to-34 year-olds had dropped to 10.6 million, while renter households had grown to 15.2 million.

These demographic trends and the continuing downward spiral of the overall housing market may have been one of the factors encouraging developers lately. The construction of properties with five or more units rose by some 80% in February to a seasonally adjusted 583,000 units, according to the latest results from the Department of Commerce.That helped to push overall US housing starts up by 22%, representing the first uptick in eight months, and the largest percentage gain in 19 years. Still, February 2009 starts were 47.3% lower than the prior year, and multifamily starts last month were 40.4% lower than in February 2008.

While trends do look promising, Richard Moody warns that demographics alone don’t mean much when the economy itself is in the tank since most households are cutting back on expenses. Particularly, would-be renters are increasingly opting to live with their parents or double-up–and even triple-up–with roommates.

“By no way is it smooth sailing in the current economic and credit market environment,” he relates. “While a smaller share of new households will either opt or qualify to become homeowners, the reality is that, at least for the near term, there will be fewer new households formed.”

The number of overall households in the US rose by less than 1%, or 772,000, last year. That is less than half of the new households formed in 2007 and is the smallest yearly increase since 2004.

And, Moody adds, “Given the severe erosion in labor market conditions that has already occurred since the onset of the recession, and that there is little hope of material improvement until sometime in 2010, the increase in households in 2009 could be smaller still than that seen in 2008. So while the homeownership rate will drop further, the smaller net increase in the number of households means that growth in demand for rental housing will be smaller than would otherwise have been the case.”

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