WASHINGTON - While the nation's foreclosure woes persist, new data show they're easing amid a resurgent housing market, rising home prices and efforts by some states to buy homeowners more time to avoid losing their homes.
The number of U.S. homes repossessed by lenders last month fell 11 percent from January and declined 29 percent from February last year, tumbling to the lowest level since September 2007, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
Some states continued to see sharp increases in homes lost to foreclosure last month, including Washington, Wisconsin and Iowa. But home repossessions declined both on an annual and monthly basis in a majority of states, including past foreclosure hotbeds such as California, Georgia and Arizona.
All told, 45,038 U.S. homes completed the foreclosure process in February. That's less than half of the 102,000 homes lost to foreclosure in March 2010, when home repossessions peaked, according to the firm's records, which go back to January 2005.
Foreclosures remain at more than double the pace that RealtyTrac considers normal, roughly 20,000 foreclosures a month, the average in 2005. But their national impact has been contained, said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac.
"It's definitely safe to say we're past the worst of it at a national level," he said.
Several factors are contributing to the overall decline in completed foreclosures. More jobs and ultralow mortgage rates are helping the once-battered housing market recover, and the rising demand combined with fewer available homes has helped push home prices steadily upward since last year. They posted their biggest annual increase in six years in January.
Higher home values help restore equity to homeowners, which can help those at risk of foreclosure by improving their chances of refinancing their mortgage to a lower payment or place them in a better position to sell their home.
In the first nine months of 2012, 1.4 million homeowners who had been underwater on their mortgage, or owed more than their home is worth, were moved into positive equity, according to data from CoreLogic.
The tight supply of available homes for sale has created a sellers' market, with many properties drawing multiple offers. That means even bank-owned homes and those in some stage of foreclosure, which typically sell at a discount to other homes, are going for higher prices.
That has given banks further incentive to let homeowners who have fallen behind on their payments avoid foreclosure by authorizing a short sale, when a lender agrees to accept less for a home than what the seller owes on their mortgage.
Last year, sales of homes in some stage of foreclosure rose 6 percent from a year earlier, while sales of bank-owned homes fell 15 percent, according to RealtyTrac.
Meanwhile, states like California, Nevada and Washington have passed laws to increase homeowners' protections from foreclosure. Those laws have effectively delayed the pace of homes entering the foreclosure process, which has helped to thin the pipeline of completed foreclosures in those states.
The combination of fewer foreclosed homes hitting the market and higher prices for those that do sell is good news for homeowners because those properties will be less of a drag on the value of nearby homes.
"They'll have less of a negative impact just because there are fewer selling," Blomquist said.
As of the end of February, 1.5 million U.S. homes were in some stage of foreclosure or in banks' possession, according to RealtyTrac.
Given the monthly pace of home repossessions through February, Blomquist projects there will be 600,000 completed foreclosures this year, down from 671,000 last year.
He also expects the number of homes taken back by lenders to increase later this year, noting that 1.2 million homes entered the foreclosure process in 2012.
Typically, about half of those end up as bank-owned homes, he said.
While lenders took back fewer homes last month, the number of properties that entered the foreclosure process in February increased 10 percent from the previous month, RealtyTrac said.
The monthly gain was the first after three monthly declines. So-called foreclosure starts were down 25 percent from February 2012, with Nevada, New York, Washington and 13 other states posting annual increases.
Overall, Florida posted the nation's highest foreclosure rate, which RealtyTrac measures by tracking the number of properties with foreclosure-related filings.
One in every 282 households in the state received at least one filing, or more than three times the national average.