The national vacancy rate for single-family homes fell in 2011 as foreclosures slowed and sales of empty units increased by 14% over the past four quarters, according to new government figures released Tuesday morning.

The Census Bureau reported the homeowner vacancy rate fell to 2.3% in the fourth quarter, down 40 basis points from a year ago.

Economists at Wells Fargo Securities believe that with foreclosures expected to increase this year – and with a nagging ‘shadow inventory' –  the nation's homeowner vacancy rate will not reach a normal 2% rate until 2021.

"The bottom line is that it appears as though the housing market is a long way off from reaching a balance between supply and demand," WFS economists write in a new report.  

"With so many vacant homes overhanging the market, prices will remain subdued, which will tend to keep appraisals and mortgage underwriting on the conservative side," the WFS economics group wrote.  

The number of vacant homes for sale totaled 1.78 million as of Dec. 31, down almost 14% from a year earlier.

The median asking price on a vacant house was $133,800 in the fourth quarter, compared to $140,300 a year ago.

The Census Bureau report also shows the U.S. homeownership rate fell in the final quarter of 2011 to 66%, down half a point from the prior year.

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