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Foreclosure activity edges higher in January

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Banks took back more U.S. homes in January than in the previous month, the latest sign that foreclosures are accelerating after slowing sharply last year while lenders sorted out foreclosure-abuse claims.

Foreclosures rose 8 percent nationally last month from December, but were down 15 percent from a year earlier, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.

Despite the annual decrease at the national level, some states posted sharp increases compared to January 2011. In Indiana, foreclosures jumped 69 percent. They increased 75 percent in Massachusetts and 62 percent in New Hampshire.

Indiana had the 10th highest foreclosure rate in the nation in January with one foreclosure for every 555 properties. Foreclosures were filed on 5,039 properties in the state. Nevada topped the nation with one foreclosure for every 198 properties.

The foreclosure trend is expected to strengthen this year in light of last week's $25 billion settlement between the nation's biggest mortgage lenders and 49 state attorneys general over the industry's handling of foreclosures.

Many banks and mortgage servicers processed foreclosures without verifying documents. Some employees signed papers they hadn't read or used fake signatures to speed foreclosures — a practice dubbed "robo-signing."

Major banks temporarily put foreclosures on hold after the problems surfaced in the fall of 2010. Some had to refile previously filed foreclosure cases and revisit pending cases to prevent errors. Those delays and uncertainty over state and federal probes into the industry's foreclosure practices led to a sharp slowdown in foreclosure activity last year.

The settlement between the banks and state attorneys general helps clarify the rules banks must follow to foreclose on borrowers, said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac. That will pave the way for more foreclosures, he said.

"The settlement will accelerate the foreclosures that are happening this year and it will accelerate the process of lenders catching up on the backlog of foreclosures that has been building up over the last year and a half," Blomquist said.

Credit rating agency Fitch Ratings also anticipates foreclosures will climb nationally this year, but not right away, noting it will take some time for lenders and mortgage servicers to make sure they are in compliance with the rules set forth in the settlement.

"You probably are going to see the pace pick up as the year goes on," said Grant Bailey, a managing director at Fitch.

RealtyTrac projects foreclosures will rise 25 percent this year to 1 million homes. Last year, lenders took back 804,000 homes.

Even so, the rise in foreclosures isn't expected to be uniform nationwide. That's because the settlement isn't likely to ease the backlog of foreclosure cases in states where courts play a role in the process.

In addition, some states have taken steps to slow lenders down.

Throughout the housing downturn Nevada has had the nation's highest foreclosure rate. There, a law that went into effect in October requires that foreclosure documents must be filed in the county where a property is located and a lender must provide a notarized affidavit detailing their legal right to proceed.

That has contributed to fewer homes entering the foreclosure process, but also a smaller pool of foreclosed homes available for sale in places like Las Vegas.

There are as many as 3,000 fewer homes listed for sale in the greater Las Vegas market than just a year ago, said Rosa Herwick, a broker and owner of Century 21 JR Realty in Henderson, Nev.

That's made multiple offers on foreclosures and other properties priced up to $250,000 commonplace, she said.

"There are tons of homes sitting out here vacant that people haven't paid on for two years, or whatever the case, that should be in the foreclosure pipeline and are not yet," Herwick said.

Foreclosure activity in Nevada fell 8 percent last month from December, but was down 52 percent from January last year, RealtyTrac said.

High unemployment, a sluggish housing market and falling home values remain major factors in homeowners falling behind on their mortgage payments. Many borrowers also have simply stopped paying their mortgage because they owe more on the mortgage than the home is worth.

All told, 210,941 U.S. homes received a default notice, were scheduled for auction or were repossessed by a lender in January, RealtyTrac said.

That's up 3 percent from December, but a drop of 19 percent from January last year. The foreclosure rate translates to one in every 624 U.S. households.

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