Fewer U.S. homes entered the foreclosure process or were seized by lenders in July, the latest sign banks are taking a measured approach to moving against homeowners who have fallen behind on mortgage payments.
Some 59,516 homes received an initial default notice last month, down 7 percent from June and down 39 percent from July 2010, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
The notices, which are the first step in the foreclosure process, have fallen 58 percent below their April 2009 peak.
Homes scheduled for auction also declined in July, while the number of homes seized by banks slipped 1 percent from June and slid 27 percent versus July last year, the firm said.
The slowdown in foreclosure activity is not due to an improving housing market. It's the result of foreclosure processing delays and banks' reluctance to take back properties while there is a glut of unsold foreclosed homes on the market.
"I'm wondering if we're not seeing a new normal, where basically the lenders will move on these properties as quickly as they think they can sell them off in the market," said Rick Sharga, a senior vice president at RealtyTrac.
Banks are working through foreclosure documentation problems that first surfaced last fall and an ensuing logjam in some state courts. Lenders also have put off on taking action against delinquent borrowers as U.S. home sales have slowed this year.
Another factor stalling foreclosure activity is the prospect of a broad settlement of government probes into mortgage lending. Attorneys general in all 50 states and major banks have been working to reach an agreement to settle claims of shoddy mortgage and foreclosure practices.
For homeowners already behind in payments, the slowdown is helping them remain in their homes longer _ in some cases for more than two years _ particularly in states like New York and Florida, where courts play a role in the foreclosure process.
All told, banks took back 67,829 homes in July, that's down 34 percent from a peak set last September, RealtyTrac said.
Banks are now on track to repossess between 800,000 and 900,000 homes this year, down from more than 1 million last year, Sharga said.
The firm had originally anticipated some 1.2 million homes would be repossessed by lenders this year.
That's good news for homeowners, because foreclosures tend to sell at a discount to other properties, which can weigh down home values overall.
But it also spells a longer road to recovery for the housing market. That's because lenders now have about 850,000 foreclosed homes on their books, not counting the roughly 1.1 million homes that are in some stage of foreclosure, and many of those homes could end up being repossessed by lenders and eventually put up for sale at a discount.
In all, 212,764 U.S. homes received a foreclosure-related notice last month, a 4 percent drop from June and a 35 percent decline versus July last year. That translates to one in every 611 households, RealtyTrac said.
Despite the slowdown in foreclosure activity, several states posted outsized foreclosure rates last month.
Nevada continued to lead the nation, with one in every 115 households receiving a foreclosure notice in July.
Rounding out the top 10 states with the highest foreclosure rate in July are California, Arizona, Georgia, Utah, Florida, Michigan, Idaho, Illinois and Wisconsin.