The U.S. homeownership rate rose unexpectedly in the third quarter from 2Q11 as rental vacancies climbed – with new evidence suggesting that tenants are tiring of rising rents.

But overall, the home ownership rate is still down 0.6 percentage points compared to the same quarter a year ago.

The Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the homeownership rate rose to 66.3% in the third quarter from 65.9% in 2Q11. The 65.9% rate marked the lowest reading since the second quarter of 1998.

Most of the increase in the third quarter homeownership rate can be traced to a bump up in black and Hispanic ownership. Homeownership rates among whites rose only 0.1% in the third quarter to 73.8% -- a level last seen in 2000.

The U.S. homeownership rate has declined nearly three full percentage points since it peaked at 69.2% in 2004. A one-percent drop in the rate means that 1.1 million households no longer own a home.

Wednesday's report also shows the rental vacancy rate rose 0.6 percentage points from the second quarter to 9.8% in the third. The increase in vacancies may signal that tenants are getting tired of the rising cost of renting as home prices fall and become more enticing.

The median asking price for a vacant house for sale was $136,700 in the third quarter, compared to $141,800 a year ago.

Roughly 1.86 million vacant single-family homes were for sale as of Sept. 30, down 4.5% from a year ago.

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