U.S. homeowners are getting better about keeping up with their mortgage payments, driving the percentage of borrowers who have fallen behind to a three-year low, according to a new report.
Still, the rate of decline remains slow, credit reporting agency TransUnion said Wednesday. The percentage of mortgages going unpaid is unlikely to return anytime soon to where it was before the housing market crashed.
Some 5.49 percent of the nation's mortgage holders were behind on their payments by 60 days or more in the April-to-June period, the agency said. That's the lowest level since the first quarter of 2009.
The second-quarter delinquency rate is down from 5.82 percent in the same period last year, and below the 5.78 percent rate for the first three months of 2012.
The positive second-quarter trend coincided with an improving outlook for the U.S. housing market.
A measure of national home prices rose 2.2 percent from April to May, the second increase after seven months of flat or declining readings.
Sales of previously occupied homes also declined in June, but were higher than a year earlier.
Home refinancing surged in the second quarter, as interest rates sank to historic lows. And more borrowers with underwater mortgages — or home loans that exceed the value of the home — refinanced through the government's Home Affordable Refinance Program than ever before.
"More people are making their payments, and that's great," said Tim Martin, group vice president of U.S. housing for TransUnion. "I expected a little bit better, but maybe we'll see some more of that pick up in (the third quarter)."
Even as housing trends turned positive earlier this year, the U.S. economy began to show signs of faltering. The national unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, and the pace of job growth slowed sharply, with employers adding an average of only 75,000 jobs in the April-June quarter. Hiring appeared to pick up in July, however, with employers adding 163,000 jobs.
TransUnion anticipates the mortgage delinquency rate will continue to decline. But it doesn't see it falling below 5 percent this year.
The national delinquency rate remains well above its historical range, an indication many homeowners are still struggling five years after the housing downturn.
Before the housing bust, mortgage delinquencies were running at less than 2 percent nationally. It took about three years after the housing market crashed for the delinquency rate on mortgages to climb to a peak of nearly 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009. The rate has been trending down since then.
Home prices need to recover further for the delinquency rate to decline.
At the state level, Florida led the nation with the highest mortgage delinquency rate of any state at 13.48 percent, down from 13.91 percent a year earlier. It was followed by Nevada at 10.85 percent; New Jersey at 8.15 percent; and, Maryland at 6.79 percent.
The states with the lowest delinquency rate were North Dakota at 1.32 percent; South Dakota at 1.94 percent; Nebraska at 2.24 percent; and, Wyoming at 2.41 percent.
Foreclosure hotbeds Arizona and California each saw marked improvement during the second quarter.
California's mortgage delinquency rate fell nearly 22 percent to 6.13 percent from a year earlier, while Arizona's declined 21 percent to 6.14.
One reason for the sharp declines in mortgage delinquency rates in those states is that homes tend to move faster through the foreclosure process than in Florida, New York and other states where the courts play a role in the process. That leads to logjams of cases involving home loans that may have gone unpaid for two years or more.
"You have states that are taking a long time to work through the delinquencies that they have, which is keeping their numbers up," Martin said.
TransUnion's research is culled from its database of 27 million anonymous consumer records.