NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Homeownership in the U.S. fell to its lowest rate in 15 years during the first quarter as more delinquent borrowers lost their homes to foreclosure, forcing many to rent.
The percentage of Americans who own their homes dropped a full percentage point over the past 12 months to 65.4% during the first three months of 2012, according to the latest Census Bureau data. That's the lowest rate since 1997 and down from the peak of 69.2% reached in 2004.
"As foreclosures grew over the last six years, many homeowners became renters," said Alex Villacorte, director of analytics for Clear Capital, a real estate valuation company.
The rental vacancy rate dropped to 8.8% during the first quarter, down from 9.7% a year earlier and from 9.4% in the last quarter of 2011, according to Census.
The growing demand has put pressure on the rental markets, said Villacorte. In many depressed housing markets, investors have been buying up distressed properties -- foreclosures and short sales -- fixing them up and renting them out.
The median asking rent last quarter was $721, up 5.6% from 12 months ago, according to Census.
Rents are highest in the Northeast, where the median is $932, followed by the West ($845), the South ($660) and the Midwest ($607).
Meanwhile, median home prices continue to fall. During the first quarter 2012, the median asking sales price for vacant units was $133,700. That's down from $143,700 during the first quarter of 2011, according to Census.
Homeownership has fallen for all age groups, races and regions since the housing boom, Census reported.
It is lowest in the West, where it has dropped one percentage point over the past 12 months to 59.9%. The Midwest has the highest homeownership rate at 69.5%, down 0.9 point year-over-year; the South is second at 67.5% (down 0.9 point) and the Northeast is third at 62.5 (down 1.4 point).