Rent prices are rising as homeownership continues to decline.

A sign twirler advertises apartments for rent in downtown Los Angeles. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

The nation's homeownership rate slipped to its lowest level in 19 years in the first quarter as more households rented and home sales remained low.

That's according to the Census Bureau, which said 64.8% of homes in the U.S. are owner-occupied, the lowest share since the second quarter of 1995. Homeownership rates topped 69% at various times in 2004 and 2005 before the foreclosure crisis and housing crash pushed millions of Americans back to renting.

Meanwhile, the census said the rental vacancy rate stayed near record lows at 8.3%, and the median rent for available units nationwide hit an all-time high of $766 per month.

Housing economists say there are a number of factors at work. Tight credit and higher-than-they-have-been home prices are keeping some would-be buyers out of the market. Others are sidelined by high student debt or concern about the soft job market. And there's at least some evidence that young adults are postponing homeownership, either by choice or through economic necessity.

"I think a lot of households will be renting instead of buying for some time," said Stan Humphries, chief economist at real estate website Zillow.

Just 36.2% of households headed by someone younger than 35 owned their home in the first quarter, down from 41.3% in 2008 -- though the homeownership rate has fallen across every age group except for senior citizens.

Homeownership is lowest in the West, at 59.4%.