Mortgage delinquency and foreclosure rates soared nationally in the first quarter from the comparable 2007 period, with 89 percent of the increase coming in already hard-hit California, Florida and Nevada.

The Mortgage Bankers Association Delinquency Survey, which covers 45.2 million first-lien mortgages on one- to four-unit residential properties, showed that the delinquency rate rose to 6.35 percent of all loans in the 2008 quarter, from 4.84 percent of all loans in the first quarter of 2007.

What this means in numbers is that of the nation's 45.2 million mortgages, 2.87 million were at least one payment behind. A year ago, when there were 43.9 million loans, the comparable number was 2.12 million loans.

The 30-year delinquency rate is still below levels seen as recently as 2002, the association said.

The percent of mortgages in foreclosure nationally almost doubled, to 2.47 percent from 1.28 percent, while the number of foreclosures started in the quarter was 0.99 percent of those 45.2 million mortgages, compared with 0.58 percent in the 2007 first quarter.

The rates of both were the highest since 1979, the association reported.

"The magnitude of the national increases is clearly driven by certain loan types and certain states," said Jay Brinkmann, the association's vice president for research and economics.

"The problems in California and Florida are extraordinary, and they are the main drivers of the national trend," he said.

When Commerce Bancorp Inc. chief economist Joel F. Naroff looks at the numbers, "what pops out is how concentrated the problems are," he said.

"While all parts of the country are having problems, they are extreme only in a few areas," Naroff said. "Most of those are where prices soared and the biggest bubbles were created."

The "seriously delinquent" rate - loans in arrears 90 days or more - are a better measure of the mortgage problem because being 30 days late could mean that a homeowner simply forgot to mail the payment on time.

Nationally, the seriously delinquent rate is 1.56 percent of 45.2 million mortgages, or 705,120 loans.

In Pennsylvania, 1.46 percent of 1.54 million mortgages, or 22,484 loans, were seriously delinquent. In New Jersey, the percentage is 1.24 percent of 1.28 million loans, or 15,872.

Loans in foreclosure in Pennsylvania at the end of the first quarter totaled 30,030, or 1.95 percent. In New Jersey, 2.31 percent, or 29,568 loans, were in foreclosure at the end of the quarter.

Both numbers included foreclosures started in that quarter. By contrast, 182,500 of California's almost six million mortgages are in foreclosure, more than 1.5 percent started in the first quarter.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are expanding programs to help homeowners behind on their mortgage payments or facing foreclosure.

In addition, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter announced more measures this week to keep foreclosures under control - efforts being aided by Sheriff John Green's decision to postpone foreclosure sales until July.

Generally, a small percentage of foreclosure filings ever reaches sale.

According to Brinkman, the increase in foreclosure starts reflected only a decline in home prices in many of these hard-hit areas that prevented homeowners from refinancing out of rapidly increasing subprime adjustable rates.

A Federal Reserve report released today showed that real estate-related assets fell $328.9 billion nationally in the quarter from the fourth quarter of 2007, the biggest drop since 1951.

Equity as a share of a homeowner's total real estate holdings fell to 46.2 percent from 48.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

That decline - reinforced by stock price drops and tighter credit - helped cut the nation's household wealth in the first quarter by $1.7 trillion, the most since 2002, the Fed reported.

Fixed interest rates were virtually unchanged today, with 30-year mortgages rising one basis point, to 6.09 percent from 6.08 percent last week, Freddie Mac reported. A year ago, the rate was 6.53 percent.

Tightened credit is a national phenomenon, "and that is pressuring areas where the problems are not nearly as dire," Naroff said.

"This is a concern, as it makes it more difficult to come out of the construction recession quickly if everyone is punished, not just those areas where the worst problems exist," he said.

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.