The default rate for bank-held commercial property loans fell in the fourth quarter for the first time in more than four years — just one of several factors Real Capital Analytics believes point to an improved marketplace. Commercial real estate defaults fell to 4.28% in the fourth quarter, down from 4.36%, according to RCA. The New York-based analytics firm also reported that defaulted loan balances fell to $45.8 billion after 17 consecutive quarterly increases. The fourth-quarter drop constituted almost $1 billion.

Earlier this month, Trepp analytics targeted commercial real estate a problem sector for many banks. Of the nonperforming loans on the balance sheets of the 12 banks that failed in February, 72% were for commercial real estate, according Trepp's data. That accounted for $230 million in nonperforming CRE loans. Commercial property sales increased 45% in February from a year earlier, RCA reported. This follows a year-over-year gain of 56% in January. In the first two months of 2011, commercial sales volume topped $17.6 billion, RCA said. The firm added that the office and retail sectors are experiencing the greatest increase in activity. RCA said other factors, including new property offerings, "presage a continuation of the improving trends" in the investment markets. February property offerings exceeding $18 billion reached their highest monthly level since October 2008, according to RCA. Asking prices for these offerings are also in line with recent sales trends, "indicating sellers are both motivated and realistic." At the end of February, at least $22.5 billion of transactions were reported under contract in addition to Blackstone's pending $9.4 billion acquisition of Centro Properties' U.S. shopping center portfolio and an even larger merger between AMB Property and Prologis, RCA said. Write to Christine Ricciardi. Follow her on Twitter @HWnewbieCR.