In another sign that the housing crisis is winding down, Sonoma County foreclosures tumbled in 2013 to their lowest level in seven years.
County homeowners lost 449 properties at foreclosure auctions last year, down 63 percent from 1,228 foreclosures in 2012, according to real estate information service DataQuick.
The county experienced a similar decline last year in mortgage defaults, the first step in the foreclosure process.
“That's huge,” said Madeline Schnapp, director of economic research for PropertyRadar, a Truckee company that tracks foreclosure and property data.
Schnapp, who resides in Sonoma County, acknowledged that foreclosures remain above pre-crash levels. And one in five California homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. But both of those measures are improving and the housing market remains on a gradual recovery.
“We've gone through the bottom and we've come through the other side,” she said.
Since 2007, Sonoma County has recorded more than 11,000 foreclosures, or more than one in 10 homes with a mortgage.
Foreclosures peaked in 2008 amid a historic plunge in housing prices. That year, homeowners lost a record 2,820 houses and condominiums.
But an improving economy, rising home prices and foreclosure prevention efforts have combined to bring down foreclosures across California, DataQuick President John Walsh said.
Statewide, foreclosures declined to 8,205 in the fourth quarter, down 61 percent from a year ago. Mortgage defaults fell 53 percent to 18,120.
“Some of this decline in foreclosure starts stems from the use of various foreclosure prevention efforts — short sales, loan modifications and the ability of some underwater homeowners to refinance,” Walsh said in a statement. “But most of the drop is because of the improving economy and the increase in home values.”
“Fewer people are behind on their mortgage payments,” Walsh said. “And of those who do get into trouble, many, if not most, can sell and pay off what they owe.”