The percentage of mortgages in foreclosure rose to the highest point in three decades in the fourth quarter of 2002, but the share of borrowers behind in their mortgage payments dropped, indicating that the number of homeowners in trouble may have peaked.

A quarterly survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America found that the delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit residential properties was 4.53 percent at the end of the fourth quarter. That was down from 4.66 percent in the third quarter of last year and 4.67 percent in the fourth quarter of 2001. A mortgage is considered delinquent when it's 30 days overdue. The percentage of loans beginning foreclosure also fell.

Although delinquencies declined, the proportion of homeowners in the process of foreclosure rose to 1.18 percent, from 1.15 percent in the third quarter. That's the highest percentage since the association began tracking comparable numbers in 1972.

"It's significant," Douglas G. Duncan, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, said about the increased foreclosure rate. "But is it scary or highly dangerous? No. It's only 1.18 percent of more than 35 million loans."

Duncan said the rise was expected because delinquency rates had peaked in the second quarter of 2002. The foreclosure rate usually lags -- but then mirrors -- the delinquency rate, because homeowners are delinquent in their payments before the lender forecloses. Thus, the foreclosure rate is expected to decline because delinquencies have declined.

Duncan said that mortgage originations set a record in the fourth quarter as low interest rates spurred homeowners to refinance their mortgages or buy property.

"Housing remains very strong," he said, although he noted that appreciation in housing prices has slowed around the country.

Most of the decline in delinquencies came on mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration; the delinquency rate for such loans was 11.45 percent, down from 11.62 percent. The delinquency rate for conventional mortgages actually rose slightly, to 3.08 percent; the rate on Department of Veterans Affairs loans remained almost unchanged at 7.82 percent.