Have we seen the bottom? It depends on who you ask.

New York-based Reis says that apartment vacancies have hit record highs and will move higher. Conversely, RealFacts, a Novato, Calif.-based apartment data provider, saw occupancies rise in 29 of the 33 MSAs it covered in its third-quarter report. Neither of the conflicting reports, however, indicates when rents will stop their downward slide.

The national vacancy rate jumped 10 basis points to 7.8 percent from the second quarter of 2009, according to Reis. That’s the highest rate since 1986. Reis says this is a 160-basis point year-over-year increase and a 230-basis point increase in vacancy since the sector achieved its cyclical low of 5.5 percent in the third quarter of 2006.

“I think we’re going to be breaking that [vacancy record] by the end of the year, if only because the third quarter tends to be weak,” says Victor Calanog, director of research for Reis. “By then, I will have run out of historic data points.”

Meanwhile, the National Multi Housing Council, based in Washington, D.C., reported that its Market Tightness Index rose from 20 to 31. About half of the respondents said markets were looser with higher vacancies and lower rents, while 11 percent said markets were tighter. In another study, Rent.com reported that more than 70 percent of property owners, representing 987,000 rental units, are experiencing higher vacancy rates than they did 12 months ago. “Vacancy rates are higher than they have been in the recent past,” says Peggy Abkemeier, president of Rent.com. “Our property owners are challenged to find tenants for their vacant units and don’t expect that change in the near future."

Not everyone is painting such a grim picture. RealFacts says 29 markets saw occupancy increases and that the three markets that posted the highest gains in occupancy were the ones that posted the largest declines in rents. They were: Durham, N.C. (increase of 4.6 percent in occupancy levels for the third quarter); Boise, Idaho (up 4.4 percent); and Austin, Texas (up 1.8 percent).

“We’re seeing the first evidence of occupancy stabilizing,” says Denise K. Castellucci, a customer service representative at RealFacts. “The occupancy is actually a leading indicator. Right now, it’s more turning the corner than anything dramatic.”

For folks who are focusing on maintaining occupancies, the key has been reducing rents. RealFacts said rents fell 3.7 percent nationally. Reis says asking and effective rents fell 0.5 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively. That 0.5 percent decline was the second-worst deterioration the industry has seen, exceeded only by the fall in the first half of the 2009.

Most researchers, however, believe 2010 will continue to be a difficult year for property managers. Reis expects more than 100,000 units to come online through 2009, owners/managers will be trying to rent that additional supply in 2010 with a still floundering job market.

“Projections of vacancies will continue to rise into 2010,” Calanog says. “In the second and third quarter of 2010, we expect a lot of leasing activity to take root, partially because construction has dried up.”