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By Lynn Adler
NEW YORK May 13 (Reuters) – U.S. foreclosure activity fell in April as lenders repossessed homes at a record pace but started far fewer new actions against struggling homeowners, signaling a plateau in loan failures, RealtyTrac said on Thursday.
No meaningful improvement is likely this year, however, with mortgage modifications and high unemployment only delaying the inevitable for most of these borrowers, the Irvine, California-based real estate data company said.
But nationwide April foreclosure filings — notice of default, scheduled auction and bank repossession — fell 9 percent from March and 2 percent from a year ago.
This was the first year-over-year drop since RealtyTrac started tracking annual foreclosure rates in January 2006.
“What we’re really seeing is the effect of lenders slowing down the initial notices of default while they are processing what’s already in the pipeline,” Rick Sharga, senior vice president at RealtyTrac, said in an interview.
Lenders filed default notices on 103,762 properties in April, down 12 percent in the month and 27 from a record 142,000 one year ago.
Banks, meantime, took control of 92,432 properties in the month, a record, up 1 percent from March and 45 percent from a year earlier.
With notices on 333,837 properties, one in every 387 U.S. housing units got a foreclosure filing in April.
“The housing market is still in critical condition but is stable,” Sharga said.
Borrowers are increasingly tapping federal programs that encourage lenders to alter loan terms to help owners stay in their homes. Still, the overwhelming majority will wind up in foreclosure, he said.
A record 2.8 million U.S. properties got a foreclosure notice in 2009, according to RealtyTrac.
“We still have over a million properties in foreclosure, we still have about 5 million seriously delinquent loans and we’re ultimately going to have to work through all of those, so we’re not out of this yet,” Sharga added.
Foreclosure auctions were scheduled for the first time on 137,643 properties in April, a 13 percent drop from a record 158,000 in March but a 1 percent rise from a year ago.
RealtyTrac sees “overall numbers staying at a high level and ripples of activity hitting the various stages of the foreclosure process as lenders systematically work through the backlog of distressed properties” most of the year, James J. Saccacio, chief executive, said in a statement.
METRO AREA IMPROVEMENT
Foreclosure actions fell in nine of the top 10 metro areas from a year ago.
Cities with populations of at least 200,000 in Nevada, Florida, California and Arizona still dominated the list.
Las Vegas had the highest metro foreclosure rate, with one in every 60 housing units getting a filing, but actions fell 3 percent from April 2009. Modesto, California, was in second place, with activity sinking 32 percent in the year.
FIVE MAIN TROUBLE STATES
Foreclosure activity in fives states — California, Florida, Michigan, Illinois and Nevada — accounted for 52 percent of the reduced total foreclosure actions in April.
California led the way, with 69,725 properties getting a filing. That was down 25 percent in the month and almost 28 percent in the year.
Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and Virginia were the other states with the highest foreclosure activity.
Nevada, Arizona and Florida also posted the top state foreclosure rates last month. These were among states with the most overbuilding and inflated prices during the boom and the most pain during the bust. Unemployment later swept up other states into the foreclosure tidal wave.
Nevada had the highest rate for the 40th straight month, with one in every 69 housing units getting a filing.
Other states with foreclosure rates among the top 10 in April were Idaho, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia and Colorado.