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.