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Consumers making mortgage payments top priority again
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The steady rise in U.S. home values is increasingly motivating homeowners to make paying their mortgage on time a priority, according to a new study.

Credit reporting agency TransUnion said Thursday that it examined late-payment rates between 2009 and 2012 on mortgages, credit cards and auto loans among consumers with the three types of financial obligations.

The study, which looked at payment data culled from about 20 million consumers a month, found that consumers were more likely to make timely payments on their auto loans ahead of credit cards and home loans.

But through last year, coinciding with a gradual increase in home values, the late-payment rate on mortgages nearly closed the gap with credit cards.

That suggests a return to behavior before the housing bust, when financially distressed borrowers typically prioritized paying their mortgage ahead of credit cards, TransUnion said.

“With continued improvements in housing prices, it’s probable that by the end of 2013 we will see the majority of consumers paying their mortgages ahead of their credit cards,” said Steve Chaouki, a group vice president in TransUnion’s financial services business unit.

During the last recession, many Americans reined in spending in favor of paying off debt, particularly credit card balances. The housing downturn also prompted many homeowners to make paying their credit card accounts on time a priority ahead of other financial obligations, such as their mortgage payments.

The mortgages examined in the study and found to be at least 30 days overdue had a late-payment rate of 3.83 percent in 2009. That improved to 1.91 percent last year, TransUnion said.

That’s nearly as low as the late-payment rate on overdue credit cards in the study, which stood at 1.82 percent last year, down from 2.82 percent in 2009.

Among the overdue auto loans in the study, the late-payment rate fell to 0.88 percent last year, down from 1.34 percent in 2009, the firm said.

The study also compared the spread between late-payment rates for mortgages and credit cards to changes in U.S. home prices over the same period. It found that in markets like Los Angeles, where home prices saw a pronounced drop following a sharp upswing during the housing boom, there was a bigger gap in late-payment rates between mortgages and credit cards than in markets like Dallas, where home values were more stable, by comparison.

That suggests homeowners who saw the value of their homes decline sharply were less inclined to miss credit card payments at the expense of paying their home loan on time.

Overall, homeowners are doing a better job of making timely mortgage payments. The national late-payment rate on home loans in the second quarter sank to the lowest level in five years.

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.

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.