Since 2007, Sonoma County has recorded more than 11,000 foreclosures. That amounts to more than one in every 10 homes with a mortgage.

Some of the decline in foreclosures stems from such prevention efforts as short sales and loan modifications. But bigger factors have been an improving economy and increased home values.

At the end of 2013, 12 percent of county homeowners with mortgages were underwater, meaning they owed more on their loans than the homes were worth, according to information service CoreLogic. In contrast, that figure was 32 percent at the end of 2009.

While foreclosures declined, mortgage defaults increased in Sonoma County. In the first quarter of 2014, lenders sent 218 notices of default, the first step in the foreclosure process, up 12.4 percent from a year ago.

Experts suggested that a similar statewide trend was due to an anomaly linked to a new California law known as the Homeowner Bill of Rights. When the law took effect in January 2013, lenders and their servicing companies temporarily delayed much of their foreclosure activity.

"You had a fairly dramatic drop-off in the first couple of months of the year," Schnapp said.

With the exception of 2013, the most-recent numbers for notices of default are the lowest first-quarter results in the county since 2006.

The current level of foreclosure activity may be less a measure of economic distress than of the workload capacity of foreclosure processors, DataQuick analyst John Karevoll said in a statement.

The processors still appear to be dealing with a large volume of subprime mortgages from 2006 and "may well be just working their way through a backlog," Karevoll said.

Most of the California loans in default are from the 2005-2007 period, DataQuick reported. For more than four years, the median quarter of origination for such loans has remained the third quarter of 2006 -- an indication of the weak underwriting standards then in place.

Many real estate agents who several years ago started to specialize in foreclosures have since switched back to selling non-distressed properties. An exception is James Madison, an agent for Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.

Although foreclosure activity has significantly decreased since 2008, Madison said he still has enough work this year with about 30 bank-owned properties under his care at any one time. About a third of those are for sale, about a third are in escrow and the rest are being prepared for sale.

"I anticipate that this thing will go on for another year, maybe another two years," Madison said. "I'm not really sure."

Lenders, he said, these days seem to be dealing more with problem properties, including those in flood zones or with tenants still living in the houses. In some cases, the banks have sent default notices or scheduled foreclosure auctions on several occasions for the same property.

"It is a little mind-boggling," Madison said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com

EDITORS NOTE: Mortgage defaults increased 12.4 percent in Sonoma County during the first quarter, compared to a year ago. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that defaults declined 12.4 percent.