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U.S. homeowners are doing a better job of keeping up with mortgage payments, a trend that has reduced the rate of late payment on home loans to the lowest level in more than five years.
The percentage of mortgage holders at least two months behind on their payments fell in the October-December quarter to 3.85 percent from 5.08 percent a year earlier, credit reporting agency TransUnion said Wednesday.
The last time the mortgage delinquency rate was lower was 3.61 percent in the second quarter of 2008. The firm's data go back to the second quarter of 2007.
(Read more: The affordabiity conundrum in housing)
The latest rate also declined from 4.09 percent in the third quarter, the firm said.
Struggling homeowners have seen their finances shorn up by rising home values, an improving job market and efforts to restructure home loans so they're more affordable. That has enabled them to make timely payments.
Another key driver in the improved late-payment rate: Many of the risky home loans made before 2008 that went unpaid are no longer a factor, since the homes have been sold or foreclosed upon. Loans issued since then, after banks tightened lending standards, are less likely to go unpaid.
"We are on the downward slope of the mortgage delinquency curve, so we expect to continue seeing delinquency rates that have not been seen for several years," said Steve Chaouki, head of financial services for TransUnion.
The rate of late payments on home loans has been steadily declining over the past two years. At the same time, U.S. home sales and prices have been rebounding over the past two years, while foreclosures have been declining.
(Read more: Foreclosures could rise if Congress doesn't act)
Moderate but stable job gains, still-low mortgage interest rates, and tight supply of homes for sale have helped fuel the housing rebound. That's also made it easier for homeowners to refinance, catch up on payments or sell their home, avoiding foreclosure.
Many borrowers also are making keeping up with their mortgage payments a priority over other financial obligations, encouraged by rising home values and lower unemployment, Chaouki said.
This is a reversal of a trend during the last recession and housing downturn, which left many homeowners owing more on their home than it was worth.
Even so, the mortgage delinquency rate is still about twice as high as it was before the housing bubble burst in 2007. That suggests that many homeowners still are struggling to make their payments. It also reflects that many home loans made during the housing boom remain unpaid but have yet to work their way through the foreclosure process.
TransUnion expects that mortgage delinquencies will continue to decline, falling to a rate of 3.7 percent by the end of March. The forecast assumes the U.S. economy will continue to strengthen and foreclosures will continue to thin out the backlog of older loans gone unpaid.
(Read more: Surprising connection between tech, home prices)
All told, all the states and the District of Columbia posted sharp annual declines in their mortgage late-payment rate for the fourth quarter, the firm said.
Arizona (38.6 percent), California (37.8 percent) and Nevada (34.7 percent) had the biggest annual declines. Only New York and New Jersey didn't post a double-digit percentage drop in their mortgage delinquency rate.
Meanwhile, the number of new home loans made by lenders fell in the third quarter as interest rates spiked last summer.
The data lags by a quarter, so the latest TransUnion figures cover the July-September period. They show that new home loans originated during the quarter declined to 1.9 million from 2.3 million in the third quarter of 2012.
The share of new home loans made to borrowers with less-than-perfect credit grew to 6.61 percent from 5.55 percent a year earlier. That's still well below the roughly 16.3 percent share of new mortgages that went to non-prime borrowers in the third quarter of 2007, just before the recession.
In the VantageScore credit rating scale, borrowers with a score lower than 700 on a scale of 501-990 are considered non-prime borrowers.