NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The percentage of borrowers who have dropped behind on their mortgage payments fell to a four-year low in the first three months of 2012, a bankers' group said Wednesday.
The Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday that the percentage of loans delinquent or already in the foreclosure process during the first quarter was 11.33%, the lowest level since 2008. That was a decrease of 1.2 percentage points from a quarter earlier and 0.98 percentage point below the rate 12 months earlier.
"Delinquencies are clearly continuing to improve," said Michael Fratantoni, the MBA's vice president for research and economics.
Another hopeful sign is the falling percentage of borrowers who are just getting into trouble, ones who have missed one payment. That's useful for predicting the more seriously delinquencies to come.
"Newer delinquencies, loans one payment past due as of March 31, are down to the lowest level since the middle of 2007, indicating fewer new problems we will need to deal with in the future," said Fratantoni.
These new delinquencies represented 3.1% of loans outstanding, according to Jay Brinkmann, the MBA's chief economist. That matches the long-term historical average of 3.1% going back to the 1990s, he said.
"Basically, we're back to normal on that count," he said.
One factor that has slowed the healing is the continued difficulty lenders face moving foreclosures through the pipeline, especially in states that involve the courts in the foreclosure process.
In the so-called judicial states, 6.9% of loans are in foreclosure inventory, loans that the banks have begun the legal process of foreclosing on but have not yet taken control of the property through a foreclosure sale.
In non-judicial states, where foreclosures are handled by trustees such as title companies, only 2.9% of loans are in foreclosure inventory.
The difference is mostly the speed that banks can move defaults through the system, said Brinkmann.
One way banks have started to reduce foreclosures is that they are now encouraging short sales, the deals in which borrowers sell their homes for less than what the owe, leaving the banks to absorb the losses.
That can also move delinquent borrowers out of the homes more quickly.
Banks also know that short sales are less costly to them than foreclosures, in which expenses such as property taxes, insurance and maintenance can mount up. In addition, homes repossessed in foreclosures often come to the bank in poor condition, and they command lower prices, on average, than short sales.
The mortgage lenders now often pay large incentives to borrowers willing to cooperate in getting short sales done. For instance, Bank of America is offering some struggling homeowners payments of up to $30,000 if they sell their homes in a short sale and avoid ending up in foreclosure.
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