County foreclosures hit lowest point in three years

Experts say too soon to see trend

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Fewer Clark County homeowners received foreclosure notices in November than in any month in more than three years, according to a report released Thursday.

California-based RealtyTrac Inc. reported just 172 homes in some stage of foreclosure countywide last month, a 45.7 percent decline from the same month a year earlier. In November 2010, 317 houses were in a state of foreclosure, which RealtyTrac defines as housing units in mortgage default, repossession and up for public auction. November foreclosures also dropped 38.4 percent from October.

Clark County foreclosures for November

2011 — 172

2010 — 317

2009 — 221

2008 — 235

2007 — 172

Source: RealtyTrac Inc.

Area real estate experts say the decline could have been helped along by everything from a new state law to shifting attitudes among lenders, who are more reluctant to seize homes. Others said the November numbers could be a sign the local housing market is improving. However, most were hesitant to call the one-month drop in foreclosures a lasting trend.

“It’s getting better, but it could spike again any time,” said Mike Lamb, a broker with Vancouver-based Windermere.

Last month Clark County had the fourth-highest rate of foreclosure among Washington’s 39 counties, slipping from its October ranking of No. 3 in the state.

In the last seven years, the fewest monthly notices that were sent came in September 2005, when 41 Clark County houses were in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. The highest total was in July 2009, when 629 county houses were in some stage of foreclosure.

New law

Some experts said the November slowdown could have been triggered by Washington’s Foreclosure Fairness Act of 2011.

The law has contributed to a bottleneck in the foreclosure process, said Charlene Dahlen, a spokeswoman for the Community Housing Resource Center, a Vancouver nonprofit that offers financial and mortgage default counseling.

Effective since July, the act obligates a mortgage lender to meet with the delinquent borrower to discuss foreclosure alternatives before a home is repossessed.

Although the new law has slowed down the process, “people are still in the throes of foreclosure,” Dahlen said, adding that the housing center has helped more than 660 households with mortgage counseling in the past 12 months.

Others predict Clark County’s foreclosure rates could worsen if the area’s high jobless rate and declining home values don’t recover.

“A lot of people are right at the doorstep because they see the value of their home going down,” said Neal McKeever, a financial and mortgage default counselor at the center.

October’s median home price — half sold for more, half for less — was $177,900 for all new and existing homes, a 29.4 percent decline since October 2007, when the median price of a house was $252,000 in Clark County at the height of the housing boom, according to Portland-based RMLS listing service.

McKeever said dropping home values could force more local homeowners into foreclosure, as they evaluate whether it is worth keeping up with monthly mortgage payments on a house that is worth far less than the amount they owe on the mortgage.

“It’s definitely very unsteady,” he said. “Only time will tell what will happen as we move into 2012.”

Until the unemployment rate drops significantly, however, McKeever said he expects that foreclosure rates will remain elevated. Most of people he’s spoken with who face foreclosure are in households with less income as a result of job loss or reduced hours. Clark County’s unemployment rate was above 11 percent in September, the last month complete results were available.

Glimmer of hope

Bargain-priced foreclosures and short sales continue to push prices downward, although some real estate brokers say they are beginning to see home prices flatten out in certain pockets of Clark County, such as Camas and parts of east Vancouver.

Lamb said some real estate brokers also are beginning to see more home sales activity related to businesses that are relocating to Clark County, such as Bellevue-based PeaceHealth. The company merged with Southwest Washington Medical Center earlier this year and plans to relocate 467 jobs to a new headquarters site in east Vancouver.

California-based Fisher Investments also has opened the first of several buildings planned for its Camas campus. The 150,000-square-foot building houses 400 employees and a second structure is under construction.

“As the job situation improves, that’s going to take some of the pressure off foreclosures,” Lamb said.

Whether the November decline in foreclosures is a trend or a one-time dive, at least one local mortgage lender sees it as a sign that the county is getting closer to a housing market recovery.

Mark Holzmann, regional manager of Directors Mortgage, said the one-month drop in foreclosures may have been helped along by new refinancing programs that are helping homeowners who are underwater, owing more for the house than it would sell in today’s market.

“Before, a lender wouldn’t go any higher than a 95 percent to loan value,” he said. “Now, they’re going as high as 105 to 110 percent. These programs have allowed people to lower their rates and reduce their house payments.”

According to RealtyTrac’s recent report, one out of every 951 homes is in some stage of foreclosure in Clark County. Statewide, one in every 1,072 houses is in foreclosure. Across the nation, one out of every 579 homes is in foreclosure.