Winding up "underwater" or "upside down" doesn't sound like much fun, even if it's financially speaking and not in a lake.

In this case, the descriptive terms refer to real estate conditions for many people who are struggling economically - in particular since the market recession starting around 2008.

But signs continue to point to an improving housing posture in the Charleston area. The latest upbeat figures show a year-to-year third quarter drop in "negative equity" to 14,372 properties, or 9.9 percent of all homes with a mortgage in the Charleston-North Charleston metro area; from 15,688 properties, or 10.8 percent, in the second quarter.

The numbers stem from a periodic report by Irvine, Calif.-based residential information provider CoreLogic. According to the company, negative equity means that borrowers owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. It's often referred to as being "underwater" or "upside down," the company notes.

Homeowners can wind up in such a tenuous fiscal state in cases where their property value declines, mortgage debt rises or a combination of both.

At the same time, another 6,121 homes or 4.2 percent, were in "near negative equity" for the July through September quarter locally compared with 6,528 houses or 4.5 percent in the previous three months.

Properties with less than 5 percent equity - above water but not by much - are referred to as near-negative equity, CoreLogic says. Near-negative equity residences are considered at risk should home prices fall, the company says.

At least one finding stands out in the Charleston-North Charleston third quarter statistics: The negative equity rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time in years. The drop in mortgages with little, no or negative equity in metro Charleston reflects housing values throughout South Carolina and the U.S. as a whole. South Carolina ranks 25th nationwide in the volume of mortgages at 659,372. It's 24th in "negative equity" home loans at 60,495 and 19th in "near-negative equity" mortgages with 26,347. The 9.2 percent negative equity share of all mortgages in South Carolina places the state 25th highest, while the 4 percent near-negative equity share puts it tied for 4th with three other states.

Countrywide, Nevada had the highest percentage of mortgaged properties in negative equity at 32.2 percent, followed by Florida at 28.8 percent, Arizona at 22.5 percent, Ohio at 18 percent and Georgia at 17.8 percent.

Meanwhile, nationwide figures show 791,000 residential properties sufficiently improved their financial positions so as to return to positive equity during the third quarter, bringing the total number of mortgages with equity to 42.6 million, CoreLogic says.

Still, nearly 6.4 million homes - or 13 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage - were in negative equity at the end of the third quarter this year. By comparison, 7.2 million homes, or 14.7 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage, were underwater-upside down in the second quarter.

"Rising home prices continued to help homeowners regain their lost equity in the third quarter of 2013," says Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic.

"Fewer than 7 million homeowners are underwater, with a total mortgage debt of $1.6 trillion. Negative equity will decline even further in the coming quarters as the housing market continues to improve."

Of the 42.6 million residential properties with positive equity, 10 million report less than 20 percent equity, CoreLogic says. Borrowers with less than 20 percent equity, referred to as "under-equitied," may have a more difficult time obtaining new financing for their homes due to underwriting constraints, the company says.

Overall, the equity report brought good news, the firm indicates.

"We should see a further rebound in consumer confidence and economic growth in 2014 as more homeowners escape the negative equity trap," says Anand Nallathambi, president and chief executive of CoreLogic.

"Home price appreciation has helped more than 3 million property owners regain equity since the first quarter of 2013."

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or