LOS ANGELES -- Homeowners are doing a better job of making timely mortgage payments, a trend that brought down the national late-payment rate on home loans in the second quarter to the lowest level in five years.
The percentage of mortgage holders at least two months behind on their payments fell in the April-June quarter to 4.09 percent from 5.49 percent a year earlier, credit reporting agency TransUnion said Tuesday.
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The latest rate also declined from 4.56 percent in the first three months of the year.
The last time the mortgage delinquency rate was lower was the third quarter of 2008, a time when home prices were sliding and the U.S. economy was in recession.
Five years later, U.S. home sales and prices are rising, fueled by moderate but stable job gains, still-low mortgage interest rates, few homes for sale and a slowdown in foreclosures.
Low mortgage rates have made it possible for more homeowners to refinance and lower their monthly payments. And rising home prices have helped homeowners who were "underwater" on their mortgage -- when they owed more than the home is worth -- return to positive equity. That, in turn, has opened the door for those borrowers to qualify for refinancing.
"So as prices come up, more and more of those people come off the cusp and are actually able to take advantage of those low rates," said Tim Martin, TransUnion's group vice president of U.S. housing.
The rate of late payments on home loans has been steadily improving over the past four quarters.
The second-quarter mortgage delinquency rate represents the biggest quarterly decline on record for TransUnion, whose data go back to 1992.
Even so, the mortgage delinquency rate is still above the 1 percent to 2 percent average historical range, an indication that many homeowners still are struggling to make their payments.
Before the housing bust, mortgage delinquencies were running at less than 2 percent nationally. They peaked at nearly 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009.
The late-payment rate in the April-June quarter improved in every state, with Arizona posting the biggest annual decline. The state's mortgage delinquency rate was for the quarter was 3.6 percent, down about 42 percent from the second quarter last year.
California, with a rate of 3.6 percent, and Colorado (2.3 percent) also had steep annual declines in the rate of late payments.
Florida had the highest mortgage delinquency rate in the nation at nearly 9.9 percent, even though it declined about 27 percent from a year earlier.
TransUnion, which draws its data from a sample of 27 million consumer records, anticipates the national mortgage delinquency rate will continue to decline in the third quarter, finishing below 4 percent.
"We're still a long way from what we'd call normal," Martin said.