LOS ANGELES – The number of homes taken back by lenders in the first half of this year fell 30 percent compared with the same 2010 period, the result of delays in foreclosure processing that threaten to stall a U.S. housing recovery.
Banks seized 421,212 homes in the first six months of the year, down from 529,633 between January and June last year, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
The decline reflects lenders taking longer to move against homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments. The 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.
As the processing delays mount, however, so has the backlog of potential foreclosures -- homes that otherwise would have been repossessed by lenders this year.
RealtyTrac estimates that 1 million foreclosure-related notices that should have been filed by banks this year will be pushed to next year. The filings include notices for defaults, scheduled home auctions and home repossessions -- warnings that can lead to a home eventually being lost to foreclosure.
The delayed filings buys more time for many borrowers behind in payments to remain in their homes, perhaps giving them time to catch up or simply to stall their inevitable eviction. But it also means any eventual foreclosures will happen next year, extending the shadow of distressed properties that hovers over the market.
"The best-case scenario is we don't get back to normal levels of foreclosure activity until 2015, which means the housing market recovery gets delayed by at least a year," said Rick Sharga, a senior vice president at RealtyTrac.
And given delays in the time it's taking lenders to move a home from default to foreclosure and then sell the property, the housing turnaround could conceivably be pushed out to as late as 2016, Sharga said.
"It could be the new reality is we're going to have to accept the fact that home prices in most markets aren't going to budge much for the next several years while this overhang gradually, painfully makes its way into the market and gets purchased," he said.
In all, some 1.2 million U.S. homes received a foreclosure-related notice in the first six months of this year, RealtyTrac said.
That's down 29 percent from the same period last year and down 25 percent versus the second half of 2010.
Put another way, one in every 111 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing between January and June.
In addition to repossessing fewer homes, banks also fired off 36 percent fewer initial notices of default in the first half of this year than in the same period last year. The notices are the first step in the foreclosure process.
Foreclosure activity did pick up slightly between May and June, although lenders repossessed fewer homes than they did in June last year.
At the current pace, banks are on track to take back between 800,000 and 900,000 homes this year, down from a record of 1 million lost to foreclosures last year, Sharga said.
The firm had originally anticipated some 1.2 million homes would be repossessed by lenders this year.
Foreclosures typically sell at a discount to other types of homes, weighing down home values. As a result, housing experts say U.S. home prices are unlikely to recover until the glut of foreclosed homes on the market is cleared out.
Lenders have been careful not to unload all of their foreclosures on the market at once, and have financial incentives to continue doing so. But the prospect of more foreclosures hitting the market for years to come makes it difficult to predict when home values will stabilize. And that keeps many would-be homebuyers on the sidelines.
Between April and June, it took an average of 318 days for a home to go from the first stage of foreclosure to the point where it was sold at auction or taken back by the lender, RealtyTrac said. That's up from 298 days in the first three months of the year and up from 277 days in the second quarter of last year.
The foreclosure process took longest to play out in New York at an average of 966 days, or 2.6 years, during the second quarter. New Jersey was second-slowest at an average of 944 days, RealtyTrac said.
Homes were on a relative foreclosure fast-track in Texas, taking an average of 92 days to go through the process, the fastest turnaround time in the nation.
Despite slowdown in foreclosure activity, several states continue to have outsized foreclosure rates.
Nevada continued to lead the nation, with one in every 21 households receiving a foreclosure notice in the first half of this year.
Rounding out the top 10 states with the highest foreclosure rate in the first half of this year are Arizona, California, Utah, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Florida, Colorado and Illinois.