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The state of the housing market has long reached a point where it's good news to hear, "It's not getting worse." Unfortunately, according to a firm that tracks borrowers behind on their mortgages, you can conclude at best, "It's getting worse, but less quickly."

Rising sales, largely spurred by first-time buyer credits, have given people hope that the beleaguered housing market has finally hit bottom and is even showing signs of life. It's been impossible, however, for me to get excited about this, considering that the number of people falling behind on their loan payments is growing, not shrinking. Unemployment continues to produce new delinquencies, and it's been many quarters now since we were talking only about subprime mortgages. No, delinquencies are hitting regular old fixed-rate mortgages to borrowers with good credit, too.

And here's the latest report from Lender Processing Services out of Jacksonville, Fla.: Delinquency rates have hit historic highs. More than 7.4 million home loans nationwide are in some stage of delinquency or foreclosure, with another 1 million properties either bank-owned or sold out of foreclosure. An incredible 10% of all U.S. loans are delinquent.

The worst-hit areas are the usual suspects: the boom-and-bust states of Florida, Nevada, Arizona, California, plus the economically savaged areas of Michigan and Ohio. Also up there are Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana and Illinois. But few states are escaping the problem; it's just that the worst states are so, so bad it makes the others look relatively good.

LPS says, "The pace of deterioration has slowed." That's the supposed good news. But I have a hard time thinking optimistically about this, not just because in January alone 346,000 borrowers fell behind on their payments for the first time. The other disturbing statistic is that older loans make up a higher percentage of new delinquencies -- that means people who already had fallen behind and pulled themselves out of it (maybe through a loan modification program) are delinquent again. This confirms what many have said about the federal programs to reshape mortgages into loans people can actually pay: They're not doing the job for enough people.

The sheer number of bad loans surely means more foreclosures, which means more houses on the market being sold at bargain-basement prices. And that means we'll watch our property values continue going down, down, down.

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