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Processing delays, not recovery, cited for drop in repossessions

Thu., May 12, 2011, midnight

LOS ANGELES – Fewer Americans had their homes repossessed by banks or were put on notice for being behind on their mortgage payments in April compared to a year ago.

That would ordinarily suggest improving fortunes for U.S. homeowners, but the decline had less to do with any turnaround in the housing market than with foreclosure processing delays that appear to be getting worse. That is threatening to drag out a housing recovery, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said.

It’s taking longer for lenders to move against homeowners who have stopped paying their mortgage and to take back homes already in some stage of the foreclosure process. In states like New York, for example, it now takes an average of more than two years for a home to go from the initial stage of foreclosure to being repossessed by a bank, the firm said.

Those delays, partly due to banks working through foreclosure documentation problems that came to light last fall, means it could take many more years for lenders to deal with a backlog of seriously delinquent properties, which numbers up to 3.7 million, by some estimates.

Banks repossessed 69,532 homes last month, down 5 percent from March and down 25 percent compared with April of last year, according to RealtyTrac, which tracks warnings sent to homeowners throughout the foreclosure process.

The number of properties receiving an initial notice of default fell to 63,422, down 14 percent from March and down 39 percent from April 2010.

Homes scheduled for auction for the first time also declined in April, falling to 86,304. That’s down 7 percent from March.

A weak housing market, sliding home prices and pressure on lenders to give troubled homeowners more time to work out new payment arrangements or loan terms have all contributed to the longer time frame for foreclosures.

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