TransUnion reports that customers at least 60 days past due on their mortgage payments rose to a new record in the fourth quarter.

The credit-reporting agency said 6.89% of mortgage borrowers were at least two months behind on payments during the fourth quarter. It was the 12th consecutive quarter the delinquency rate rose.

The rate, which is seen as a precursor to foreclosures, was 6.25% during the third quarter and 4.58% during the final quarter in 2008.

Mortgage delinquencies and defaults remain a major problem for the economy. A collapse in home sales and prices, as well as rising defaults, helped push the country into recession. Signs of a recovery in the market have been slow and uneven in recent months.

The average national mortgage debt per borrower increased (0.29%) to $193,690 from the previous quarter's $193,121. On a year-over-year basis, the fourth quarter 2009 average represents a 0.47% increase over the fourth quarter 2008 average mortgage debt per borrower level of $192,789. That increase suggests stabilization in housing prices, traditionally seen as a key ingredient for a sustained economic recovery, according to TransUnion,

As customers struggled to repay mortgages, they also fell further behind on paying off credit cards. Customers at least three months late on making a credit card payment rose to 1.21% during the final three months of 2009. However, average credit card debt fell to $5,434 from $5,729 during the same quarter a year earlier.

While mortgage and credit card delinquencies worsened, auto delinquencies improved. The 60-day delinquency rate on auto loans fell 6% in the fourth quarter to 0.81%, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. The delinquency rate was unchanged from the third quarter.

Auto loan delinquencies could be improving because of more favorable terms and deals in recent months for new cars, says Peter Turek, TransUnion's automotive vice president in its financial services business unit.

"The flattening of auto delinquency rates in the fourth quarter may be an optimistic sign for payment behavior over the remainder of this year," he says. "Since 2000, auto delinquency rates have increased in the fourth quarter except for one occasion back in 2003. At the start of the recession, the auto delinquency rate increased nearly 15% from the prior quarter. Part of the reason why we may be seeing a gradual turnaround in delinquency rates is the impact of new lower risk loans over the past several quarters including new loans from the popular government program, Cash for Clunkers."

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