NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- A new study on the number of past-due mortgages shows there are more than 6 million mortgages going unpaid in the U.S. right now. That's the bad news.

The good news? The rate of delinquencies is starting to slow down.

The new numbers come from Lender Processing Services, which says the total U.S. home loan delinquency picture for October looks like this – by the numbers:

  • Total U.S. loan delinquency rate (home loans 30 days past due, but not in foreclosure): 7.93%
  • Month-over-month change in rate: -2.00%
  • Year-over-year change in rate: -14.6%
  • Homes 30 days or more past due (but not in foreclosure): 4,088,000
  • Homes 30 or more days delinquent (or in foreclosure): 6,298,000

That last number, the total number of delinquent mortgage holders, is alarmingly high. But in a classic “glass half full” analogy the LPS numbers could be worse – and they actually have been in the not-too-distant past. The firm says that the number of unpaid home mortgages stood at 8,118,000 in January 2010, while there were 6,870,000 unpaid U.S. mortgages at the start of 2011. And in LPS’s “first look” at September’s mortgage landscape, unpaid home loans stood at 6,373,000.

So, the rate of those unpaid mortgages is in decline, and that’s got to be a major upside for a housing sector that has spent the past four years reeling from blow after blow from a ravaged economy.

LPS doesn’t give any reasons why the delinquency rates may be in decline (the firm says that it will provide a more detailed look at the October home delinquency rates on Nov. 30), but the reasons why those delinquencies are in decline aren’t exactly a mystery.

Most of the U.S. homes that fell into a serious late-payment syndrome have already fallen into foreclosure. As the financial blog Economistsoutlook.com (from Realtor.org) puts it, “the fewer bad mortgages in the pipeline, the fewer the number of homes that will undergo foreclosure in the future.”

The blog points out that the mortgage delinquency rate in the U.S. is currently 3.5%, significantly lower than the 4.7% recorded in 2010 and 5.1% in 2009.

As the folks at Realtor.org phrase it, the housing market is “clearly healing” and that news couldn’t come at a better time for homeowners, home sellers and anyone who works in the housing industry.

So call it an early Christmas present for them, and for the U.S. economy in general. Let’s just hope that there won’t be any need for a return on that gift come January 2012.