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File // Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

Charlestonís seasonal beach-rental market skews the housing vacancy rate for the area higher.

The portion of South Carolinians who own the homes they live in was lower in 2010 than a decade earlier, as the housing meltdown took its toll.

And the number of vacant homes and apartments has soared, newly released census data reveal.

Statewide, 69.3 percent of housing units were owner-occupied last year -- higher than in many states, but below the 72.2 percent ownership rate in the Palmetto State in 2000.

"Homeownership was the big drive, and that's maybe no longer a given or even a goal," said Mike MacFarlane of the state Office of Research and Statistics. "This is one of the indicators about what's going on."

In Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties there were 38,555 vacant residences in 2010. When the roughly 9,400 vacant seasonal rentals are subtracted out, that means one of every 10 year-round residences was vacant.

The good news: Dorchester and Berkeley counties have lower vacancy rates than most counties in the state. Charleston County falls near the middle because its large supply of seasonal rentals raise its vacancy rate considerably.

With a vacancy rate of 9 percent, Dorchester was tied for lowest in the state, while Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach, had the highest, at 40 percent.

The population of the three-county area rose quickly during the past decade, but the number of housing units -- houses, condominiums, apartments, seasonal rentals and other residences -- increased even faster.

"If you look at the numbers, there was probably some considerable overbuilding," said Philip Ford, executive vice president of the Charleston Trident Homebuilders Association. "We built a lot of houses, especially in that peak time frame. It's hard to know when to quit building."

That's one reason vacancy rates for both owner-occupied-homes and rentals were higher in 2010 than in 2000, in each of the three counties.

And while the number of vacancies sounds shockingly high, only about 3 percent of homeowner properties were vacant in each county. Most of the vacant residences were rental and seasonal properties, and rental properties can be vacant because they are between tenants.

Lynn Carmody, an agent with Carolina One Real Estate and former head of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, was surprised to learn the census found higher rates of rental vacancies than a decade ago.

"Our rental market is strong right now," she said. "I feel like there's a strong surge of renters out there due to foreclosures, short sales, and people walking away from homes where they are upside-down on their mortgages."

Carmody suggested the rental numbers could be inflated by people trying to rent houses they are unable to sell. Ford agreed, and noted that some condos have also been converted to rental properties.

"I know that on my street there were several houses people couldn't sell, so they ended up renting them," Ford said.

Not counting seasonal properties such as beach houses for rent, the tri-county area had 29,170 vacant residences in 2010, an increase of 66 percent from 2000. According to the census, which used data collected in early 2010, 5,212 of those vacant residences were homes listed for sale.

"At some point it will turn around," said Ford. "They've got to live somewhere."