The number of mortgages in foreclosure climbed in the first quarter, but fewer Americans were behind on their mortgage payments, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America said Friday.

The seasonally adjusted delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one- to four-unit residential properties fell to 4.52% at the end of the first quarter, down one basis point from the previous quarter and 13 basis points from the first quarter of 2002. However, the percentage of all loans in the process of foreclosure at the end of the quarter increased 2 basis points to 1.2% from 1.18% in the fourth quarter of 2002.

"Economic growth remained sluggish in the first quarter of 2003, as the number of jobs declined and personal bankruptcies continued to climb," said Doug Duncan, the association's senior vice president and chief economist. "Nevertheless, the overall delinquency rate declined slightly by the end of the quarter, continuing the downward trend in overall delinquencies."

The MBA, which represents the real estate finance industry, took its data from a survey of 33 million loans, and cited technical factors in its methodology as a big reason for the quarterly decline in the delinquency rate. While each type of loan in the survey posted an increasing delinquency rate over the previous survey, the new survey included fewer Federal Housing Administration-backed loans, which carry a much higher past-due rate than the others. As a result, the overall rate was lower.

Duncan predicted the economy would pick up later this year, as the benefits of fiscal stimulus and the strong refinancing market are realized.