The homeownership rate in the United States essentially nudged down slightly in 2011, but seems to be stabilizing, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Tuesday.

The seasonally adjusted homeownership rate was 66% in the fourth quarter, only three tenths of a point lower than the third quarter and half a point lower than it was in the fourth quarter of 2010. Standard margin of error for the numbers is 0.3 percent.

The homeownership rate reached a high of 69.4% in the second quarter of 2004, pre-recession. The rate was 64.4% in 1995, about when the U.S. government decided to concentrate on increasing homeownership, launching a number of programs to help people buy homes.

Predictably, the rental vacancy rate fell slightly during 2011, as people moving out of owned homes and moved into rentals, according to Census data. The rental vacancy rate was 9.4% in the fourth quarter compared to 9.7% in the first quarter.

The numbers do show a positive for the housing market as rents continue to be historically high while the cost of buying homes continued to fall in 2011. Median asking rent prices spiked at the end of 2011 to a median of more than $700 a month, near historic highs, while the asking sale price for homes declined to mid-2005 levels.

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.