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Holding the line on consumer debt in Buffalo-Niagara

When it comes to debt, consumers in the Buffalo Niagara region generally are a pretty conservative lot.

We tend to borrow less than most Americans.

And we tend to do a better job than most Americans paying it back.

But that doesn't mean that everyone in the Buffalo Niagara region has an easy time handling their debts. A little more than three of every 20 local consumers either were more than 90 days late on at least one debt or had a collections agency looking to get a payment on an overdue debt, according to new data from the Federal Reserve of New York.

Since the recession ended, consumers in the Buffalo Niagara region have been holding the line on most of their consumer debt. If you adjust for inflation, the balances on our mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and home equity loans all have declined since 2009 as lenders have tightened their credit standards.

The lone exception - and it's a big one - is student loan debt, which has been growing every year since 2003. Student loan balances now are 20 percent higher than they were in 2007 and 45 percent bigger than they were in 2003.

But our smaller debt balances on other types of borrowing reflect the region's below-average incomes and home values, said Scott Laughlin, vice president at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo.

"We tend to spend a little more conservatively and spend within our means because we don't have the other financial resources to tap into," he said.

Mortgages

Consumers in the Buffalo Niagara region aren't buried in mortgage debt.

In fact, the average mortgage balance of $104,100 here is less than half the national average of $221,000, according to the Fed data, which is derived from a sampling of credit reports from credit reporting firm Equifax.

That's not surprising, since median sale prices here are 42 percent lower than the national median, according to the National Association of Realtors.

And with inflation-adjusted sale prices holding roughly steady over the past five years, it also makes sense that average mortgage balances locally have barely budged.

Even so, delinquency rates on mortgages have inched up from their pre-recession levels. About 2.5 of every 100 local mortgages were more than 90 days past-due last year, down from 3.4 per 100 in 2012 but up from 1.6 per 1000 in 2007. The delinquency rate is a tad higher than the 2.3 percent rate nationally.

Home equity loans

With real home prices holding steady, local homeowners can't rely on rising home values to build the equity in their homes. As a result, the average balances on home equity loans locally have been roughly flat over the past five years, the Fed report found.

With low home prices leaving homeowners with less equity in their homes, the average balance on local home equity loans, at $40,600, are about one-third lower than they are nationally, where the average balance is $60,700.

Home equity loans are a little more popular here, with just under 9 percent of all consumers having home equity debt, compared with 5 percent nationwide.

Consumers also are highly likely to keep up with the payments on their home equity loans. Only a little more than one of every 200 home equity loans locally are more than 90 days delinquent, compared with ab out three in 200 nationwide.

Auto loans

Consumers in the Buffalo Niagara region are borrowing less for automobiles, but they're struggling more to keep up with the payments.

The average balance on auto loans locally has dropped by about $3,000 over the past 10 years to $13,600 at the end of 2015, the Fed data showed. That's more than $4,000 less than the average auto loan balance of $17,800 nationwide.

But the data also showed that consumers are having trouble keeping up with their car loan payments. About 4.6 percent of all auto loans locally were more than 90 days past due at the end of last year, compared with delinquency rates that ran in the mid-2 percent range from 2003 to 2008.

Despite the uptick in past-due loans, the local delinquency rate still is well below the 6.7 percent national rate.

Credit cards

Nowhere are the after-effects of the recession more apparent than in credit card debt.

Fewer Buffalo Niagara consumers now have credit card debt. They owe about 25 percent less than they did during the recession. And they're doing a much better job staying current on their payments.

The average credit card balance, which peaked at $7,156 at the end of 2008, has dropped to $5,400, the Fed data showed. That's less than the average balance of $5,700 nationwide.

Delinquency rates, which topped 12 percent in 2006, have fallen to 7.1 percent in 2015 and are better than the nationwide rate of 8.3 percent. And fewer consumers have credit card debt, with 55 percent of consumers holding credit cards last year, down from a peak of 61 percent in 2005.

The lower balances and delinquency rates likely are due to tougher credit standards by card issuers since the recession, along with industry reforms established through the Card Act, Laughlin said.

Student loans

Student loan debt is soaring, with inflation-adjusted average balances jumping by 45 percent since 2003 to $28,700 at the end of 2015, or about $1,000 less than the national average.

Student loan debt also is spreading. While one in 10 local consumers had student loans in 2003, nearly one of five Buffalo Niagara consumers have them today.

And the swelling balances are proving to be a bigger burden on those borrowers. While roughly one of every 11 student loans were more than 90 days overdue in 2005, it's about one of every eight loans today.

"Student loans are probably going to continue to increase," Laughlin said.

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