The delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit residential properties decreased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 7.58% in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

That's down 41 basis points from the third quarter of 2011, and a decrease of 67 basis points from the year-ago figure, according to the MBA's national delinquency survey.

The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of the fourth quarter was 4.38%, down 5 basis points from the third quarter and 26 basis points lower than one year ago.

An improved economy, a stronger job market and stronger loans are helping the numbers, MBA Chief Economist Jay Brinkmann said.

"The total delinquency rate and foreclosure starts rate decreased and are back down to levels from three years ago," he said. "A major reason is that the loans that are seriously delinquent are predominantly made up of loans originated prior to 2008 and this pool is steadily growing smaller as a percent of total loans outstanding. In addition, employment is the key driver of mortgage performance and the mortgage delinquency rate is actually falling faster than the unemployment rate is declining.”

The total delinquency rate peaked at 10.1% in the first quarter of 2010. The rate of foreclosure starts peaked in the third quarter of 2009 at 1.4% but has now dropped to 1%.

Still, Brinkmann said the percentage of loans in foreclosure, which, while down somewhat at 4.4%, is "still much closer to the all-time high of 4.6% reached in the fourth quarter of 2010 than the longer-term average of roughly 1.2%."

The MBA reported that total delinquency rates and foreclosure starts fell quarter-over-quarter basis for every loan type.