Foreclosure filings have fallen dramatically in California from a year ago, but it’s hard to say why, according to a new report from real estate information service MDA DataQuick.

Lenders filed 81,054 notices of default (NODs) during the first three months of the year, a 4.2 percent decline from the fourth quarter of 2009 and a 40.2 percent drop from the record level seen a year ago, DataQuick said.

Foreclosure filings have fallen dramatically in California from a year ago, but it’s hard to say why, according to a new report from real estate information service MDA DataQuick.

Lenders filed 81,054 notices of default (NODs) during the first three months of the year, a 4.2 percent decline from the fourth quarter of 2009 and a 40.2 percent drop from the record level seen a year ago, DataQuick said.

It’s unclear how much of the drop is due to shifts in market conditions and how much is because of changes in lenders’ policies, DataQuick President John Walsh said in a company announcement.

"We are seeing signs that the worst may be over in the hard-hit entry-level markets, while problems are slowly spreading to more expensive neighborhoods," Walsh said. "We’re also seeing some lenders become more accommodating to workouts or short sales, while others appear to be getting stricter about delinquencies. It’s very noisy out there."

In ZIP codes where median home sale prices were below $500,000, mortgage-default filings fell 5.8 percent from the prior quarter and nearly 43 percent from a year earlier.

But in ZIP codes with median prices above $500,000, mortgage defaults were up 1.5 percent from quarter to quarter, and saw a less dramatic year-over-year decline of 19 percent.

Default rates remain much higher in ZIP codes with median prices below $500,000, however — 10.5 NODs per 1,000 homes, compared with 4.5 NODs per 1,000 homes in areas with median prices above $500,000.

Mortgages were least likely to go into default in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, DataQuick said, and most likely to default in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

It was taking an average of 7.5 months for homes to make their way through the foreclosure process, compared with 6.8 months a year ago. Lenders may be coping with backlogs, or taking extra time to pursue loan modifications and short sales, DataQuick said.

Not all homes that are foreclosed on complete the process. A total of 42,857 houses and condos were lost during the first quarter, according to DataQuick’s count of the number of trustees deeds recorded.

That’s a 16.1 percent decline from the fourth quarter of 2009, and a 46.1 percent drop from the record 79,511 trustee deeds recorded in the third quarter of 2008.

DataQuick estimated that foreclosure resales accounted for 42.6 percent of all California resale activity during the first quarter, up from 40.6 percent during the final three months of 2009 but down from a peak of 57.8 percent a year ago. The foreclosure share of resale activity ranged from from 13.8 percent in San Francisco to 67.7 percent in Merced County.

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