The nation's homeownership rate has fallen to 65.4 percent, the lowest level in 15 years, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The homeownership rate topped out at 69.2 percent in the second and fourth quarters of 2004, as the peak of the housing boom approached. It began declining slowly after the real estate bubble burst in late 2006, then steadily dropped after the financial meltdown in September 2008.

In the first quarter of this year, with so many potential first-time buyers choosing to rent, instead, and millions more forced to rent after losing their houses to foreclosure, the national apartment-vacancy rate dropped to 8.8 percent, from 9.7 percent in the first three months of 2011. The number of occupied rental units increased by 1.4 million in first quarter 2012, while the number of owned/occupied houses fell by 491,000, the census data show.

Although current numbers for the Philadelphia region were not available, 2010 census data showed stable homeownership rates for the four suburban Pennsylvania counties compared with 2000. The city's homeownership rate did fall, however, to 54 percent in 2010 from 59 percent in 2000. There was no comparable data breakout available for Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau also reported that construction spending nationwide rose 0.1 percent in March from February and was 6 percent higher than a year ago. Residential-construction spending rose 2.9 percent from February and was 3.8 percent higher month-to-month for single-family homes.

Multifamily spending fell 3.1 percent from February, which IHS Global Insight housing economist Patrick Newport said was "nothing to be concerned about," given the recent pickup in building permits, "which point to solid increases" through 2012 and into 2013.

That observation appeared to confirm survey results announced Tuesday by national home builder Pulte showing that 61 percent of 506 renters polled online in March said they planned to buy houses within the next two years.

The shift from renter to buyer will not be rapid, meaning continued growth for the apartment market, the survey suggested. In addition, Clear Capital research director Alex Villacorta said that investor interest in turning bank repossessions into rentals to meet demand might "put a rising floor on home values."

Although Philadelphia saw an uptick in sales of bank repossessions in the first quarter, according to data analyzed by Econsult Corp. vice president and economist Kevin Gillen, the number of foreclosures completed between March 2011 and March 2012 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey was lower than in the previous 12 months.

CoreLogic, a provider of real estate estate information, said Pennsylvania saw 12,436 foreclosures completed in the 12 months ended March 2012 compared with 15,551 in the previous 12 months. New Jersey had 1,888 completed foreclosures in the last 12 months and 5,688 between March 2010 and the same month in 2011.

In the Philadelphia region, which CoreLogic defines as the eight-county area as well as New Castle, Del.; Cecil County, Md.; and Salem and Cumberland Counties, N.J., there were 4,263 foreclosures completed in the last 12 months, compared with 5,153 in the previous year.

Since September 2008, 3.5 million U.S. foreclosures have been completed.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, or@alheavens at Twitter.