After a decade of real estate boom and bust, new census data show homeownership in Beaufort County dropped by 2.6 percent during the past decade and fell even more in some of its municipalities.
The percentage of households that own their homes fell 4.7 percent in Beaufort, 4.9 percent in Hilton Head, 6 percent in Bluffton and 10.4 percent in Port Royal, according to data from the 2010 Census released earlier this month.
Ownership rose only in Yemassee, which has fewer than 500 households.
But the decline hardly is confined to the Lowcountry.
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A one-two punch of soaring real estate prices followed by the housing meltdown has reduced homeownership across South Carolina.
First came a rise in real estate prices that far outstripped average incomes, making homeownership harder to attain. Then came the collapse of the housing market, which triggered foreclosures, unemployment and a stock market crash.
By 2010, the rate of homeownership in South Carolina had fallen below 70 percent, down from 74 percent in 2000, census data show. That difference of a few percentage points represents about 187,000 people.
William Dudley Gregorie, who until 2007 was director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office serving South Carolina, said homeownership had been increasing through the middle of the decade and across racial lines.
"I think that during that period we had one of the best homeownership rates the state ever had, across the board," Gregorie said.
Gregorie argued predatory lending practices, involving loans with unfavorable interest rates, played a role in reversing the homeownership trend.
A study by the Mortgage Bankers Association's research arm said the national homeownership rate dropped from an all-time high of 69.2 percent in 2004 to 66.4 percent in the first quarter of 2011. The study concluded that the drop reflects a decline from unsustainable levels to something closer to historical averages and said homeownership could level off or fall another 1 or 2 percentage points.
The 2010 Census also included questions about whether residents owed money on their homes.
That data show that 23 percent of Beaufort County homeowners own their properties outright. That lags the statewide rate of 34 percent.
But mortgage-free homeowners are most common in rural counties, where property values are low and mobile homes are common.
The (Charleston) Post & Courier contributed to this report. Follow staff writer Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.