In these troubled times, more Americans come current on mortgages
Even in an environment of declining home values, the number of Americans making good on their mortgage continues to grow. The first-quarter national mortgage delinquency rate decreased to 6.19%, according to credit-reporting agency TransUnion. The numbers are down 3.4% from 6.41% in the fourth quarter and down 8.6% compared to 6.77% a year earlier. The rate encompasses borrowers delinquent 60 days or more. According to Standard & Poor's, U.S. consumers also reduced their revolving credit card debt by 18% since mid-2008 through default, borrowing less or paying down debt outstanding. This is the longest and fastest credit card deleveraging since record keeping began in January 1968. Americans remain unlikely to take on more debt, despite the news that there are growing less risky. "Currently, 28% of homeowners are 'underwater,' meaning that they owe more than the value of their houses," said S&P analyst Erkan Erturk. "Economic factors such as these, as well as high oil prices and weak consumer confidence, will likely continue to pressure U.S. consumers and constrain consumer debt growth." Tim Martin, vice president of TransUnion's U.S. Housing Market group, said the recent trend seems counterintuitive. For example, as prices fall he said, the mortgage delinquency rate should rise as more and more homeowners find themselves in negative equity. "While many homeowners still face pressure to make ends meet, they have lived in their homes for a long time and have diligently been paying their mortgage each month," Martin commented. "The fact that mortgage delinquency continues to decline despite this situation demonstrates that today’s borrowers are less risky." The average borrower held about $190,115 in mortgage debt during the first quarter, according to TransUnion. While that is up 0.6% from the fourth quarter, average mortgage debt per borrower is down 1.4% compared to the first quarter of 2010. The area with the highest average mortgage debt per borrower was Washington D.C. at $375,579, followed by California at $338,792 and Hawaii at $313,770. Borrowers in West Virginia have the lowest amount of mortgage debt at $99,640. TransUnion predicts delinquency rates will fall further throughout 2011, as improving economic conditions and tighter lending standards offset the impact of home prices declines. Earlier in May, TransUnion said its credit risk index fell for the fifth straight month in the first quarter, "indicating consumers are increasingly likely to repay their debt obligations and are managing new credit more responsibly." The company said its index decreased about 5% from the fourth quarter and was down 1.6% from a year earlier. The quarterly decline was the largest since the third quarter of 2008, TransUnion said. Consumer demand for credit also fell during the first quarter and "remains historically low." "The broad and steady decline in the Credit Risk Index, coupled with a moderate decrease in the demand for credit over the previous year suggests that consumers continue to live within their means, tending to acquire new credit only for larger, specific purchases," said Chet Wiermanski, global chief scientist at TransUnion. Still, S&P reports that it expects the rate of household deleveraging to slow. "The long downward trend in credit card debt may soon bottom as the household debt service and financial obligation ratios are near their historical averages," said the S&P report. "Also, declining consumer default and charge-off rates and increased willingness to lend at large banks signal that revolving debt deleveraging is slowing down." Write to Christine Ricciardi. Follow her on Twitter @HWnewbieCR.