The number of Sonoma County homeowners entering the foreclosure process has dropped to its lowest level in nearly five years as more owners surrender their properties in short sales.

Analysts, however, differ on whether the decline is a sign the foreclosure crisis is abating — or simply taking a temporary pause.

Mortgage defaults tumbled 19 percent in Sonoma County during the first quarter, compared to a year ago, according to a report issued Tuesday by DataQuick, a San Diego-based real estate information service.

Lenders sent default notices to 698 borrowers who had fallen behind on their mortgages, triggering the first step of the foreclosure process. It was the lowest number since the second quarter of 2007.

Foreclosures, meanwhile, dropped nearly 24 percent from a year ago. Lenders seized 397 homes during the quarter, an average of 30 every week.

DataQuick analysts attributed the decline to an improving economy and real estate market, as well as to policies that increasingly favor short sales over foreclosures. Short sales are transactions where the sales price is less than the amount owed on the mortgage.

"Foreclosure activity goes up when property values decline, and the worst of that decline was happening three years ago," DataQuick president John Walsh said in a statement. "Right now, property values in many areas appear flat."

That conclusion fell flat with several local agents who specialize in foreclosures.

"I don't think it's because the economy has gotten better," said John Binns, an agent with Creative Property Services in Santa Rosa. The real reason for the decline was anybody's guess, he said, but could just as likely be that banks are slowing foreclosure activity in a presidential election year.

More than 12,000 county homeowners have lost their properties in foreclosures and short sales in the past five years.

The number of foreclosures peaked in 2008 at 2,820 homes. By last year that figure declined to 1,898.

In the past six months, local foreclosure agents report a dramatic drop in activity as banks put fewer homes on the market after taking them back at auctions.

"The watering hole's gotten real small," said James Madison, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.

One reason is the increase in short sales, up 30 percent to date this year in Sonoma County compared to 2011.

Another is that more homes are being bought at auction by investors. DataQuick estimated that a third of the homes auctioned in the third quarter were taken by investors, a portion Madison said appeared likely for Sonoma County, too.

C.J. Holmes, owner of CJ Holmes Brokerage in Santa Rosa and a leader in the local anti-foreclosure group Homeowners for Justice, maintained the drop in foreclosure and default notices is temporary.

"I think they're probably going to seriously ramp up," Holmes said.

Holmes wants county and state officials to put a halt to foreclosures. The many people facing foreclosure or who owe the banks more than their homes are worth "don't think it's getting better," she said.

Sean O'Toole, founder and CEO of ForeclosureRadar in Discovery Bay, said foreclosures may continue at this decreased pace, resulting in a slowdown in overall home sales and related economic real estate activity. He opposes proposed state legislation to halt foreclosures.

The state already is experiencing a drop in homes for sale, he said. "It will get a lot worse if these anti-foreclosure bills are passed," he said.

Statewide, mortgage defaults dropped nearly 18 percent in the first quarter, when lenders sent 56,258 notices. The typical borrower was nine months behind on payments and took out the loan in the summer or fall of 2006, when weak mortgage underwriting standards peaked.

Trustees deeds, which record the actual loss of a home to foreclosure, totaled 30,261, down nearly 30 percent from a year earlier. It took 8.5 months for the typical home to wind its way through the foreclosure process, beginning with a default notice.

Over the last five years, one in 10 of the state's 8.7 million houses and condos have been lost to foreclosure, DataQuick reported.

Doug Solwick, broker/owner of Advantage One Real Estate in Santa Rosa, said a lot of people are still likely to lose their homes before the housing market improves.

"We are bouncing off the bottom," Solwick said. "I'm just not convinced that we're not going to bounce for a couple two or three years."