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Foreclosure activity dropped markedly in Sonoma County late last year, but experts remain skeptical the change signals better times soon for homeowners and the housing market.

In the fourth quarter, lenders sent county homeowners 815 default notices, the lowest number in three years, according to DataQuick, a San Diego real estate information service.

The notices, the first step in the foreclosure process, totaled 3,333 for all of 2011. That was the lowest figure in four years and 30 percent below the peak number of 4,771 mortgage defaults recorded in 2009.

The number of homes lost at foreclosure auctions also fell for both the fourth quarter and the entire year. But additional data suggests the number of owners who actually surrendered their homes has remained relatively unchanged for the past three years.

The reason is the drop in foreclosures appears to be offset by an increase in the number of short sales, where the home is sold for less than the amount owed on the mortgage.

With either outcome, "they've still lost their homes," said Doug Del Fava, an agent who specializes in foreclosures for Frank Howard Allen in Kenwood.

Foreclosures soared to record levels in the county as home prices tanked in the recent recession. The number of foreclosures peaked in 2008 at 2,820 homes. By last year that figure declined to 1,898.

More than 12,000 county homes have been lost to foreclosures and short sales in the last five years. Of those, 391 homes were taken back at foreclosure auctions in the fourth quarter, the lowest figure in four years.

The latest county numbers from DataQuick mirrored those for all of California. Mortgage defaults and trustees deeds, which record the actual loss of the home, each declined by about 12 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier.

"We are certainly seeing a lower level of foreclosure activity than a year or two ago," said DataQuick President John Walsh. "The question is, how much of that decline is due to market conditions, and how much is due to policy changes that try to address economic distress and lower home values?"

Local real estate agents and others expressed similar uncertainty for the cause in the decrease. They acknowledged the change might be due to fewer people falling behind on their mortgage payments, but it also could be due to the increased time taken by lenders to demand repayment.

"The banks are moving so slowly," said Forrest Jinks, a principal in Santa Rosa's Altus Equity Group, a private equity firm whose purchases include foreclosure homes.

According to DataQuick, homeowners in the state were a median nine months behind on payments when the lender filed the default notice. The median borrower then owed $19,949 on a $333,036 mortgage.

Real estate agents said that time period was considerably longer than for delinquent homeowners before the housing crisis.

And with three in 10 owners here owing more to lenders than their homes are worth, agents repeatedly said they see no quick turnaround.

James Madison, an agent with Coldwell Banker, predicted it will take "all of this year and probably even all of next year" before the foreclosures numbers drop significantly.

Sean O'Toole, founder and CEO of ForeclosureRadar in Discovery Bay, said it could take even longer to work through all the homeowners who already are behind on their mortgages.