Fewer U.S. homes entered the foreclosure process or were taken back by banks in November, reflecting a seasonal pullback in foreclosure activity by lenders and mortgage servicers.
But for some homeowners already behind on their mortgage payments, the end-of-year slowdown isn't likely to provide much of a reprieve.
The number of homes in foreclosure and scheduled to be auctioned hit a nine-month high last month, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
The surge came about because of a spike three months earlier in homes entering the foreclosure process for the first time. And unless those borrowers find a way to get current on their mortgage payments, many of those homes will likely be sold at auction or end up being taken back by the lender.
"Despite a seasonal slowdown similar to what we've seen each of the past four years, November's numbers suggest a new set of incoming foreclosure waves," said RealtyTrac CEO James Saccacio.
All told, foreclosure auctions were scheduled on 96,540 U.S. homes last month, RealtyTrac said. That's up 13 percent from October, but still down 17 percent from November last year.
Some states posted far higher monthly increases in scheduled home auctions last month. In California, they were up 63 percent, while in Washington they climbed 56 percent.
Those homes could end up back on the market as foreclosures or short sales, when a homeowner sells their property for less than what they owe on their mortgage. And that means more pressure on home values, because foreclosures and short sales typically sell for a lot less than other homes.
U.S. foreclosure activity slowed sharply starting in October of last year, after problems surfaced with the way many lenders were handling foreclosures. Specifically, signing off on home foreclosures without first verifying documents _ a practice referred to as "robo-signing."
Many of the nation's largest banks reacted by temporarily ceasing all foreclosures, re-filing previously filed foreclosure cases and revisiting pending cases to prevent errors.
The pace of foreclosure activity continued to slow much of this year as major lenders worked toward a possible settlement of government probes into the industry's mortgage-lending practices.
Those settlement talks, led by a group of state attorneys general, have suffered some setbacks in recent months after officials in California and Massachusetts broke with the rest of the states. There also has been disagreement among the states' prosecutors over what terms to offer the banks.
Still, there have been signals that foreclosure activity will be increasing in coming months.
Banks stepped up action in August against homeowners whose mortgage had gone unpaid. The number of homes receiving an initial notice of default that month jumped 33 percent from July. Default notices also rose between September and October.
That helped set the stage for the sharp increase in scheduled foreclosure auctions last month and will likely contribute to an anticipated bump in home repossessions early next year, Saccacio said.
Home repossessions hit their lowest level since March 2008 last month, according to RealtyTrac. In all, banks took back 56,124 homes last month, down 17 percent from October and from November a year ago.
Banks are now on track to repossess some 810,000 homes this year, down from more than 1 million last year, according to RealtyTrac. The firm had originally anticipated some 1.2 million homes would be repossessed by lenders this year.
High unemployment, a sluggish housing market and falling home values remain a major factor in homeowners falling behind on their mortgage payments. Many borrowers also have simply stopped paying their mortgage because they are underwater _ a term for owing more on a mortgage than the home is worth.
At the end of September, 10.7 million, or 22.1 percent of all U.S. homes with a mortgage, were underwater, according to CoreLogic. And an additional 2.4 million borrowers had less than 5 percent equity in their homes, the firm said.
In all, 224,394 U.S. properties received a foreclosure-related notice last month, down 3 percent from October and down 14 percent from November last year, RealtyTrac said. That amounts to one in every 579 households.
Initial default notices declined 8 percent from October and were down 9 percent from November last year.
At the state level, Nevada had the nation's highest foreclosure rate last month with one in every 175 households receiving a foreclosure notice _ more than three times the national average.
California, which alone accounted for 28 percent of all U.S. homes receiving a foreclosure notice last month, had the second-highest foreclosure rate. Arizona was third.
Rounding out the top 10 states with the highest foreclosure rate in November are Utah, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina.