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RISMEDIA, February 22, 2011—(MCT)—There’s a note of optimism in the air about the U.S. mortgage delinquency rate. The number of mortgages that were past due in the fourth quarter of 2010 was at its lowest level since the end of 2008 (excluding homes that are already in foreclosure). Meanwhile, the number of U.S. mortgages that were one month late last quarter fell to its lowest level since the end of 2007, the Mortgage Bankers Association recently reported.

The number of homes in foreclosure, however, rose, thanks to processing delays tied to investigations of servicers’ back-office procedures.

The percentage of total delinquencies on one- to four-unit properties was 8.22% in the fourth quarter, compared with 9.13% in the third quarter and 9.47% in the final quarter of 2009.

In an even better sign, the percentage of loans at least 90 days past due and in the process of foreclosure fell to 8.57% nationally, down from 8.7% in the third quarter and 9.67% a year ago.

“This is really a significant improvement in the underlying situation,” said Michael Fratantoni, the association’s vice president for single family research. “We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

In part, the improvement may be tied to the tighter loan underwriting that has become a mainstay of the housing market since 2008. Most mortgages that fall into delinquency do so within the first three years. “We simply have a better set of loans entering the peak of the natural default cycle and for that reason I think we’re going to continue to see a decline in the delinquency rates,” said Jay Brinkman, the mortgage bankers’ chief economist.

The unemployment rate and job creation is also key to improvement. “The mortgage market is going to reflect how the jobs market improves,” Brinkman said.

The trade group’s survey tracks about 88% of all first mortgages.

(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.