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Mortgages Are Paid Ahead of Credit Cards Again (But Still Aren't First)

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Back in the vortex of the Great Recession, when millions of cash-strapped Americans had to choose what bills they could afford to pay, the tendency was to pay credit card tabs before mortgage bills.

A March 2011 study by TransUnion noted that for the three straight prior years, consumers did just that, and that this "provided evidence that consumers adjust their payment behavior in response to their economic and personal financial environment," said Sean Reardon, lead author. "We continue to see a significant divergence in the rates of consumers opting to pay their credit cards while going delinquent on their mortgages."

That was then and this is now.

A new report from TransUnion points to a "correlation" between higher or lower real estate prices and how the average consumer prioritize their bills. Under this "payment hierarchy," as the economy has improved and home prices have risen, consumers are increasingly more apt to protect their properties than their plastic: up an average by 10% from June 2012 to June 2013.

TransUnion isn't focusing on all U.S. homeowners here, just those in financial distress and facing "situations of constrained liquidity." These homeowners evidently see the values of their homes rising, want to keep their mortgages current so they can protect that rising investment and are much more prone to choose paying their mortgages over their credit card bill as a result.

"The results of previous TransUnion research showed that, beginning in 2008, consumers with both a credit card and a mortgage had a higher propensity to go delinquent on their mortgages than on their credit cards -- a reversal of traditional payment patterns," says Steve Chaouki, co-author of the study. "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."

Interestingly, Americans still are more likely to pay their auto loan bill before either of the other categories, TransUnion says. That was the case in 2008 and it's the case in 2013.