The percentage of Winston-Salem-area homeowners late on their mortgage payments continued to decline in the first quarter, national real-estate research firm CoreLogic reported Thursday.

The rate was 3.67% in Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Stokes and Yadkin counties, down from 3.98% in the fourth quarter and from 4.44% a year ago.

The report focuses on the delinquent mortgage market, with “delinquent” defined as being at least 30 days overdue on payment.

The rate was 0.72% for mortgage payments more than 90 days past due, down from 0.79% in the fourth quarter and from 1% a year ago. Both figures include homes in the foreclosure pipeline.

Economists say housing markets and lenders are benefiting from more homeowners being able to stay current on their monthly mortgage payments, in part because of an increase in employer hiring.

There also has been an upswing, both locally and nationally, in private-equity groups buying homes and then renting them out as they await higher home prices.

For the Greensboro-High Point MSA, the 30-day delinquency rate was 3.74%, up from 3.48% in the fourth quarter, but down from 4.17% a year ago. The delinquency rate of more than 90 days was 0.89%, up from 0.84% in the fourth quarter, but down from 1.07% a year ago.

“A moderation in home-price growth has reduced the gains in home-equity wealth and will likely slow the growth in home-improvement spending in the coming year,” said Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic.

Attom Data Solutions reported May 11 that the number of Winston-Salem area households considered as seriously underwater on their mortgages rose slightly during the fourth quarter. A mortgage is considered as underwater when a homeowner owes more than the home is worth.

Attom also found a slight decrease in area homeowners in the equity-rich stage toward paying off their mortgage.

Attom defines seriously underwater as owing at least 25% more on a mortgage than the property’s value. It defines equity-rich as a mortgage with a loan-to-home value of 50% or lower.

The Winston-Salem area had 17,493 households listed as seriously underwater. That’s 12.7% of households, up from 11.2% a year ago.

The number of Winston-Salem area households listed as equity-rich fell from 22,861 in the first quarter of 2018 to 21,680. The current equity-rich rate is 15.8%, down from 17.5% a year ago.

The Greensboro-High Point MSA counties had 17,055 housing units listed as seriously underwater, or 11.9%, up from 10.7% a year ago.

Attom found that 20,931 households in the Greensboro-High Point region were considered equity-rich, or 14.6%. The rate was 15.9% a year ago.

Officials with the Winston-Salem Regional Association of Realtors have cautioned that information on underwater loans can affect the real-estate market by undermining consumer confidence, causing some hesitation in buying or trying to sell a house now, and prompting an overreaction.

Many banks and mortgage lenders have accelerated the pace of pushing unsalvageable mortgages through the foreclosure process in recent years.

Their main motivation: Provisions for potential loan losses on commercial and residential mortgages have a direct effect on banks’ bottom lines.

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rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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