SAN DIEGO (AP) -- California home foreclosure starts increased from January through March after plunging to an eight-year low in the previous quarter, a research firm said Tuesday.

There were 19,215 default notices filed on houses and condominiums in the first quarter of this year, up 3.5 percent from 18,568 during the same period a year ago and up 6 percent from 18,120 in the fourth quarter of 2013, DataQuick said.

Figures for the first quarter of 2013 were driven lower by new state laws designed to protect homeowners from losing property.

Default notices in the fourth quarter of 2013 fell to the lowest level since the fourth quarter of 2005. Most loans going into default were made from 2005 to 2007.

Even with the increase this year, foreclosure starts are still hovering near eight-year lows, and DataQuick said the downward trend will likely continue, thanks the improving economy and higher California home prices that surged to a six-year high last month.

The numbers are the latest reminder of how sharply the housing market has turned. Homes that had been foreclosed in the previous year accounted for only 7.7 percent of existing home sales in California during the first quarter, down from 17.1 percent a year earlier and 57.8 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

Default notices -- the first step in the foreclosure process -- rose 7.9 percent from last year in the Central Valley, 1.8 percent in a seven-county region of Southern California and 0.3 percent in the San Francisco Bay Area. They dropped 5.2 percent on the Central Coast.

Among the state's largest counties, loans were least likely to go into default last quarter in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, DataQuick said. The probability was highest in Tulare, Madera and Fresno counties.

There were 7,799 foreclosures completed during the first quarter, down 4.9 percent from the previous quarter and down 42.6 percent from a year earlier. It was the lowest level of completed foreclosures since the fourth quarter of 2006, when the number stood at 6,078.