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WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - U.S. consumer delinquencies on home-related loans fell in the fourth quarter of 2012, which could indicate a slow recovery is underway in the housing market, the American Bankers Association said on Tuesday.
Delinquencies on property improvement loans, home equity loans and home equity lines of credit all fell during the quarter, the group said.
It was the first time since the fourth quarter of 2011 that delinquencies had dipped in all three categories, according to the ABA, which also tracked late payments for bank-provided credit cards, auto loans and other consumer loans.
The group does not track delinquency rates for traditional mortgage payments. It defines a delinquency as a payment that is 30 days or more past due.
"While home-related delinquencies remain at elevated levels, even one quarter of declines could signal the start of a slow but steady improvement," James Chessen, chief economist at the ABA, said in a statement.
"Falling delinquencies are another indicator of the housing market's nascent recovery," he said.
Other pieces of data have also pointed to a strengthening housing market. Last week Standard & Poor's said its S&P/Case Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas rose 8.1 percent in January from a year ago, its biggest rise since June 2006.
And Corelogic released a report showing the number of foreclosed U.S. homes that were sold or seized by lenders in February fell to the lowest level in almost five-and-a-half years.
The ABA's report also said bank card delinquencies fell to an 18-year low, and a composite ratio covering late payments in eight additional loan categories dipped.
Chessen said the improvements show consumers attempting to reduce their debt levels, which could lead to more consistent economic growth in the future.
But challenges remain as federal government spending cuts known as "sequestration" gradually take effect, resulting in furloughs of some workers, and as healthcare and other costs rise for businesses, Chessen said.
"Make no mistake about it, a great deal of uncertainty still lingers over this economy," he said.
The composite delinquency ratio fell to 1.99 percent of all accounts in the fourth quarter, below the 15-year average, the ABA said. However, delinquencies rose in three of the eight loan categories counted in the composite.
Bank card delinquencies, which are not part of the composite, fell to 2.47 percent, the lowest since the third quarter of 1994, from 2.75 percent in the third quarter, the ABA said.