Better economic times mean that fewer Minnesotans are having trouble paying their mortgage.

During the third quarter there were 2,972 foreclosures across the state, a 33 percent decline compared with last year, according to HousingLink, a Minnesota nonprofit that tracks sheriff sales county by county.

It was the first quarter since 2006 that there were fewer than 3,000 foreclosures, and the fifth consecutive quarter of year-over-year declines. The trend bodes well for home prices and the ongoing recovery, but experts warn that an alarming number of homeowners are still struggling. Foreclosure sales are still happening at nearly twice the pace they were before the housing crash.

HousingLink research manager Dan Hylton attributes the declines to improving economic conditions that have made it easier for homeowners to make their payments. He also credits the mortgage industry for not approving loans to people who aren't good credit risks.

"It's just a generally more healthy economy. You have fewer families entering the foreclosure process and fewer risky mortgages being taken out," he said. "We'll continue to see the numbers go down as the economy improves and as long as underwriting standards aren't loosened too much."

Year-over-year and quarter-to-quarter declines were posted in nearly every county statewide, including Hennepin County, where there were 620 foreclosure sales, a 40 percent decline from last year. The Twin Cities metro area saw a 34 percent decrease in foreclosure activity, compared with outstate Minnesota, where foreclosures were down 32 percent.

Hylton expects the trend to continue, but doubts that the foreclosure rate will drop at the same pace next year. Recent delinquency data from several sources suggest that sheriff sales will continue to fall in Minnesota and beyond during the coming months. Most notably, CoreLogic said this week that the serious delinquency rate (mortgages 90 or more days delinquent, in foreclosure or real estate owned) declined to 5.4 percent of all mortgages in July 2013.

"As with most other housing statistics, the trend is heading in the right direction," said CoreLogic economist Mark Fleming.