New Jersey surpassed Florida with the highest share of U.S. mortgages in foreclosure in the first quarter as delinquencies nationally fell to pre-crisis levels.

In New Jersey, 8.12 percent of mortgages were in the foreclosure process, Mortgage Bankers Association said in a report today. It was the only state to have an increase from the fourth quarter, when the share was 7.9 percent. In Florida, the rate of loans in foreclosure dropped to 7.62 percent from 8.56 percent in the previous three months.

New Jersey, which requires court approval for home seizures, is at the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis as banks work through a backlog of delinquent loans that allows troubled borrowers to skip mortgage payments for years. By contrast, hard-hit areas such as Arizona and California have some of the lowest levels of soured loans after allowing lenders to quickly repossess homes after the 2007 real estate crash.

The foreclosure inventory rate in New Jersey "has basically been flat for three years at this high level," Michael Fratantoni, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington, said in a telephone interview. "Everywhere else things are improving, and at an accelerating pace in some areas."

New Jersey led the U.S. in the rate of newly started foreclosures in the first quarter, at 1.06 percent of mortgages, up from 0.99 percent a year earlier, according to the report. Maryland was the only other state with a year-over-year increase in foreclosure starts.

Across the U.S., the rate of foreclosure starts fell to 0.45 percent, the lowest level since 2006. The nationwide rate peaked in 2009 at 1.42 percent of loans. Since then, falling unemployment, mortgage rates at historical lows and tight inventories have helped provide a foundation for the housing recovery.

The serious-delinquency rate, which measures loans at least 90 days behind or in foreclosure, fell in the first quarter to a seasonally adjusted 5.04 percent, the lowest level since 2008, according to the bankers group. The rate was 6.39 percent a year earlier.

States that require court approval for home seizures, which also include Florida and New York, account for most of the loans in foreclosure, according to the bankers group. Of the 17 states that had a higher foreclosure inventory rate than the national average, 15 were judicial states.

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