Foreclosure activity in Sonoma County has fallen to pre-housing-crash levels, as government actions and a rebound in prices have sharply lowered the number of homes taken back by banks or sold at auctions.

The county recorded 82 homes lost to foreclosure in the third quarter, according to San Diego-based information service DataQuick. That was the lowest number since 49 foreclosures occurred in the fourth quarter of 2006 — months before the county's median home sales price began a decline of 50 percent.

The number of homes entering foreclosure also is back to levels from seven years ago.

In the third quarter, the county recorded 199 notices of default, the first step in the foreclosure process. Excluding this year's first quarter, that figure was lower than for any other period going back to early 2006.

"What I've seen is the foreclosure market in our area has completely dropped off," said Terriann McGowan, the broker/owner of Admiral Real Estate in Rohnert Park and a specialist in distressed properties.

Foreclosures in the county peaked five years ago during the midst of an unprecedented housing market crash. In the third quarter of 2008, 933 county homes were lost at foreclosure auctions or taken back by banks. The year ended with a total of 2,800 foreclosures.

In contrast, for the first nine months of this year, the county has recorded 364 foreclosures.

Since 2007, a total of 11,000 county homeowners have lost houses and condominiums in foreclosures — roughly 1 in every 10 homes with a mortgage.

An additional 4,000 homes were lost through short sales, which occur when the bank allows the sale for less than the amount owed on the mortgage.

Experts attribute this year's slowdown partly to such government interventions as a state law that took Jan. 1 — the Homeowner Bill of Rights.

They also point to settlements between the nation's largest banks and state and federal officials who sought to decrease foreclosures. More than 2,000 county homeowners received reductions in their loan balances or were allowed to do short sales under a 2012 mortgage settlement that wiped out $272 million in local housing debt.

"Lots of legal, regulatory and political hurdles popped up, slowing the foreclosure rate," said John Walsh, DataQuick president. "Then the economy stabilized and home prices started rising."

His analysts noted that the average homeowner in California had fallen behind in payments for eight months before getting a notice of default, considerably longer than occurred before the housing crash.

In September, the county's median home price rose to $451,000, an increase of 27 percent from a year earlier. Experts said the rise in prices means fewer homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. That can give them an option of selling or refinancing their properties rather than facing foreclosure.

Foreclosure resales and short sales made up about 13 percent of the county's transactions in September. That was considerably less than early 2009 when such distressed properties comprised three of every four sales.

While the data points to a decline, foreclosures will continue "to trickle for a long time," said Madeline Schnapp, director of economic research for PropertyRadar, a Truckee company that tracks foreclosure and property data. She noted that 340,000 state homeowners are delinquent on their mortgages and an additional 70,000 are in the foreclosure process, but banks are "being extra careful" in dealing with them.

"It's become very politically unsavory to foreclose on a property," Schnapp said.

Across California, lenders filed 20,314 notices of default in the third quarter, a decrease of 58.6 percent from a year earlier, according to DataQuick.

Trustees deeds, which record the final loss of a home to foreclosure, totaled 8,030 statewide last quarter. That was the lowest amount for any quarter since the fourth quarter of 2006.

Real estate specialists are adjusting their businesses to the sharp drop in foreclosures.

James Madison, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa, in 2008 sold 486 foreclosures homes and ranked 10th among agents that year for all home sales in the U.S. He went on to employ a staff of 18, but he now has just one assistant and a part-time bookkeeper.

Still, he said, he receives "a fair amount of business" from lenders. And while the economy is slowly getting stronger, he predicted a few more years of foreclosure resales.

"There's still a lot of stuff that needs to be cleaned up," Madison said.

But McGowan said most of her business now is in traditional real estate sales. That's also the case for Doug Solwick, another foreclosure specialist who recently switched from owning his own Advantage One Real Estate business to becoming a broker associate with Pacific Union International in Santa Rosa.

"You have a market that just turned a corner," said Solwick. However, it happened not purely through market forces but because the federal government "spent trillions of dollars to get us there."

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