At a time when household units are forming faster than homes are being built and many Americans can’t find a home at all, it may come as a surprise that nearly one in 10 American homes — more than 16 million in all — were “vacant” when the 2020 census was recorded. In some states, the vacancy rate exceeded 20 percent. What can we make of these figures? A recent post by LendingTree attempts to parse the data by comparing vacancy rates in all 50 states, the basis of this week’s chart.
The Census Bureau considers any home unoccupied on April 1 — census day — to be “vacant,” so the definition includes unoccupied secondary homes and rentals, abandoned or foreclosed homes, seasonal migrants quarters and investment properties, in addition to empty homes that are for sale. The 2020 vacancy rates cited (which take into account experimental one-year estimates through the remainder of 2020) are the most accurate, robust data available, but shouldn’t be regarded as clear-cut, up-to-the-minute indicators of the market. They can, however, provide insight.
“You can go to a place with a super-high vacancy rate and home prices are really cheap, and that might suggest that people just don’t want to live there, or that there’s some type of economic problem that’s keeping people from buying,” said Jacob Channel, the author of the LendingTree post. “If you have an area that has a really high vacancy rate where home prices are really high, it could suggest that a lot of people use the area for secondary homes.”
The national vacancy rate hasn’t changed very much over the past 20 years, moving from 9 percent in 2000 to 11.4 percent in 2010 to 9.7 percent in 2020. So the rates alone are complicated when considering home searches or the larger issue of home shortages. “As New Yorkers we look and we say: ‘There are tens of thousands of homeless people, there are potentially millions who are struggling to afford rent, yet we still have these vacant homes,’” Mr. Channel said.
Clearly, addressing the nation’s homelessness dilemma is not as simple as putting people who need homes into vacant ones, but understanding vacancy rates is important when considering housing issues writ large, as it is for the individual home buyer.
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