What's Behind the Foreclosure Decrease

Filings decline for the third month in a row, but are things really improving?

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Even as the housing market continues to stagger, foreclosure filings in October declined for the third month in a row. Foreclosure filings were reported on 332,292 properties last month, or 3 percent fewer than September's tally, real estate firm RealtyTrac said today. Even though filings remained 19 percent higher than a year earlier, "[t]hree consecutive monthly declines is unprecedented for our report," RealtyTrac CEO James Saccacio said in a statement. But with unemployment busting through the 10 percent threshold and a slew of state and federal initiatives against foreclosures in place, foreclosure trends aren't as optimistic as they may appear in this report. Here are five things you need to know:

1. Obama rescue: The monthly foreclosure decline comes as the Obama administration ramps up its sweeping effort to get as many as 4 million struggling homeowners into more affordable mortgages. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department said it had extended more than 650,000 trial loan modifications through October, putting it on track to meet its ambitious goals. However, mortgage modifications have a checkered history of success, and it remains unclear how many of these borrowers will simply fall behind on their new loans. The concern is that the program may be delaying foreclosures rather than preventing them. "Every loan servicer or lender I have spoken to in the last couple months has basically told me that they have had to slow down foreclosure initiations because they have had to re-evaluate their portfolio of loans to see which ones qualify for [a rescue program]," says Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac's vice president of marketing. "There are about 5.5 million delinquent loans. It just takes an awful lot of time to go through each loan individually."

[Check out Obama's Loan Modification Plan: 7 Things You Need to Know.]

2. State rescue efforts: While the Obama administration's is the most expansive, the foreclosure crisis has prompted a number of state governments to launch housing rescues of their own. But as was the case with the Treasury Department, it's possible that these state-level initiatives are just postponing reality. Take Nevada, for example. With 1 in every 80 households getting a filing last month, Nevada has the nation's highest foreclosure rate. However, a new state law requiring foreclosure mediation helped trigger a 26 percent plunge in foreclosure activity from September and a 4 percent drop from a year earlier, Sharga says. Mediation very well may put some troubled borrowers into sustainable home loans, but it's quite likely that others will just redefault at a later date. "The intention is good," Sharga says. "But there will be a bill to pay at the end of this."

[See High Redefault Rates: Obama's Loan Modification Nightmare.]

3. Seriously delinquent: To get a sense of where foreclosures may head from here, economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight points to Fannie Mae's serious delinquency rates, which track loans mostly made to well-qualified borrowers. The serious delinquency rate hit 4.45 percent for single-family-home loans in August, up sharply from 4.17 percent in July and just 1.57 a year earlier. "That number keeps on growing, and the monthly increments keep getting bigger," Newport says. "I am almost sure that the foreclosure rate is going to continue to rise."

4. Unemployment problem: These days, the primary driver of home foreclosures isn't exotic mortgage products but the nation's dismal labor market. As more people lose jobs, a growing number of borrowers—even those with sound credit histories—can no longer pay their mortgage. And with the unemployment rate hitting 10.2 percent last month, job losses will continue sending homeowners into foreclosure. "I don't think that foreclosures are going to peak until the unemployment rate does," Newport says. Newport projects the unemployment rate will peak at around 10.5 percent sometime in the middle of next year.

5. Hole in the rescue: Rising unemployment also highlights a gaping hole in the Obama administration's housing rescue. Homeowners need an income stream in order to qualify for a modification, which makes anyone who can't pay their mortgage because of a job loss ineligible. But borrowers facing foreclosure after losing a job are increasingly at the heart of today's housing crisis. The administration's initiative "was not designed to address foreclosures caused by unemployment, which now appears to be a central cause of nonpayment," a congressional oversight panel said in an October 9 report. "It increasingly appears that [the Obama administration's housing rescue] is targeted at the housing crisis as it existed six months ago, rather than as it exists right now."

[Check out Foreclosure Epidemic Reaching More Expensive Homes.]