LOS ANGELES (AP) - The percentage of U.S. homeowners behind on their mortgage payments dropped in the first three months of this year to the lowest level since 2009, according to a new report.
Some 5.78 percent of the nation's mortgage holders were behind on their payments by 60 days or more in the January-to-March quarter, credit reporting agency TransUnion said Wednesday.
That's down from 6.19 percent in the same period last year, and below the 6.01 percent delinquency rate for the last three months of 2011.
The decline in the U.S. mortgage delinquency rate follows two quarters of increases. But barring any severe shocks to the U.S. economy, the rate is expected to continue easing, said Tim Martin, group vice president of U.S. Housing for TransUnion.
"We had a couple quarters where it ticked up, so it's nice to see it come back down," Martin said. "That should be what happens the rest of the year, so we're hopefully on the path of improvement now."
TransUnion's analysis is derived from a sample of 10 percent of U.S. mortgage holders.
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.
Seasonal patterns - such as homeowners skipping payments to spend money elsewhere in the last three months of the year - were likely a factor in the uptick last fall.
Still, the national delinquency rate remains well above its historical range, an indication many homeowners are still struggling five years after the housing downturn.
"It's coming down a lot more slowly than it went back up," Martin said.
The delinquency rate won't likely get back down to its normal 2 percent level until housing prices recover.
Home prices dropped in February in most major U.S. cities for a sixth-straight month, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home-price index.
Still, there have been some bright spots in housing and economic trends this year that could point to further improvement in the mortgage delinquency rate.
The U.S. unemployment rate has fallen a full percentage point since August to 8.1 percent last month - the lowest level since January 2009. Hiring has strengthened, despite posting weaker-than-anticipated gains in March and April. And the economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the first quarter, aided by stronger consumer spending.
And while sales of previously owned homes fell in March, a mild winter drove gains in January and February making this year's winter the best for home sales in five years.
As long as the economy, housing market and jobs outlook continue to improve, it's likely fewer homeowners will fall behind on their mortgage payments, Martin said.
Another factor: Loans made between 2008 and 2011, after the housing crisis had begun, have a lower delinquency rate than older loans.
"As time goes on, they become a bigger and bigger percentage of the total, so that helps bring the rates down as well," Martin said.
All but eight states saw their mortgage delinquency rate decline in the first quarter versus the last three months of last year: Montana, Hawaii, Maine, North Dakota, New York, Maryland, Washington and Delaware.
Florida led the nation with the highest mortgage delinquency rate of any state at 13.87 percent, down from 14.27 in the fourth quarter of last year.
The Sunshine State wasn't the only foreclosure hotbed where mortgage delinquency improved in the first quarter.
The mortgage delinquency rate in Arizona was 6.86 percent, down from 7.50 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011. California's declined to 6.66 percent from 7.14 percent, while Nevada's fell to 11.16 percent from 12.08 percent.