width=331NEW YORK - More homeowners are falling behind on their mortgages, jeopardizing the nascent housing recovery and raising the possibility that home prices have not found their bottom but could instead fall further.

More than 8 percent of homeowners were behind 30 days or more on their mortgage loans, up 4.4 percent from December 2009 and 21 percent from last January, according to data that Equifax Inc, one of the largest U.S. credit bureaus, provided exclusively to Reuters.

The data is based on Equifax's 200 million-plus files of U.S. consumers using credit.

This wasn't just a small uptick, said Dann Adams, president of Equifax' U.S. Consumer Information Solutions.

The surge took Adams by surprise after a fourth quarter when mortgage delinquency rates seemed to plateau.

Did we just see a headfake? Adams asked. Things looked really promising, but the January numbers say wait, there's more to this story.

The driver behind the spike in mortgage delinquency is the elevated jobless rate of 9.7 percent, Adams said.

There are some areas in the country that have had some home price stability but we're not sure how long that's going to last, Adams said.

In December, the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller composite index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas rose 0.3 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis.

But the number of homeowners who are at least 90 or 120 days late on their mortgages also continues to rise, Adams said.

There's more foreclosures in the wings, Adams said.

Foreclosures are one of the biggest threats to the U.S. housing market, whose fragile recovery has depended on government supports such as a federal homebuyer tax credit.

In January, one in every 409 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing, up 15 percent from the year-earlier month, according to RealtyTrac, based in Irvine, California.

There is a large segment of homes that are going to enter foreclosure in the next 3 to 6 months, which then puts more pressure on home prices by adding to supply, Adams said.

Indeed, foreclosures will cause home prices to decline by another 8 percent from last year's fourth quarter, according to Celia Chen, senior director at Moody'sEconomy.com.

Prices will bottom in this year's fourth quarter, with a 34 percent drop from the peak before the latest housing slump, Chen said.


As home prices decline, so does lenders' willingness to extend credit based on the value of a house, Adams said.

The average new home equity line of credit this past November, the most recent data available, was $80,724. In 2007, it was $103,840. Lenders issued 60,100 new home equity lines of credit in November 2009, 27 percent fewer than a year earlier.

And the dollar value of all new home equity lines was $4.9 billion in November 2009, down by more than two-thirds from $21 billion in November 2007.

The result: less financial flexibility for the average consumer or small business who depends on their home equity line of credit to finance other significant purchases.

In a period when we really need small business owners to thrive and be hiring, we don't have that luxury, Adams said. In the past, they could rely on a consumer credit card, a home equity line of credit, a small business loan. All three are being curtailed.

Lenders are also trying to limit their exposure to credit card delinquency and default.

In November 2009, they issued 28 percent fewer cards than a year ago and also cut the average amount of credit available per card by 16 percent to $3,832.

The total amount in dollars of bank-issued credit card debt outstanding fell 57 percent to $11.1 billion in November 2009 from $26.1 billion two years earlier.

The data suggest that there are difficulties ahead of consumers and small business owners, Adams said.

(Reporting by Helen Chernikoff; Editing by Richard Chang)