Home values nationwide fell in the first quarter, the steepest decline since 1971, Freddie Mac, the quasi-public mortgage finance provider, reported today.

Freddie's Conventional Mortgage Home Price Index fell 10.6 percent in the first quarter of 2008 from the first quarter of 2007.

The index measures sales prices or appraised values of the same houses over time.

Freddie's Conventional Mortgage Home Price Index purchase-only series registered a 10.4 percent annualized drop in values in the first quarter, chief economist Frank Nothaft said.

The size of the drop was in line with declines reported in the last 10 days by two other closely watched quarterly indexes.

Particularly striking has been the depth and breadth of the decline across the country, he said.

"In the past, we have seen regions that were still appreciating while the national average had registered a decline," he said. This time, "we saw all nine regions of the country experience price declines at the same time, though to different degrees."

For example, prices fell an average of 1.1 percent in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, but an average of 6.9 percent for states in the Pacific region.

"While we expect to see further declines in average home values throughout this year and into 2009, we will be watching very carefully for signs of stabilization in indicators of real housing activity," Nothaft said.

A slight increase in 30-year fixed mortgage rates this week, to 6.08 percent from 5.98 percent the previous week, led some economists to predict continued rate increases that would further delay an end to the downturn.

Joel F. Naroff, Commerce Bancorp chief economist, doesn't share that view.

The concern is "only that any increase is considered an issue with a market that is in the tank, that it represents the direction of the market is a detail that some prefer not to consider," Naroff said.

The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight's purchase-only quarterly index, released May 22, showed a 3.1 percent drop nationally in the same period, while the Case-Shiller National Index, announced Tuesday, recorded a 14.1 percent decline.