Foreclosure filings are down to record lows, but a more sinister-sounding problem may be on the rise—"zombie foreclosures."
RealtyTrac released its U.S. Foreclosure Market Report for February, reporting that foreclosure filings (default notices, schedule auctions, and bank repossessions) were 112,498, down 10 percent from January and down 27 percent from the previous year.
Foreclosure filings in the month of February represent the lowest monthly total since December, 2006—a more than seven-year low.
"Cold weather and a short month certainly contributed to a seasonal drop in foreclosure activity in February, but the reality is that new activity is no longer the biggest threat to the housing market when it comes to foreclosures," said Daren Blomquist, VP at RealtyTrac.
"The biggest threat from foreclosures going forward is properties that have been lingering in the foreclosure process for years, many of them vacant with neither the distressed homeowner or the foreclosing lender taking responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of the home—or at the very least facilitating a sale to a new homeowner more likely to perform needed upkeep and maintenance," Blomquist said.
As of the first quarter of 2014, a total of 152,033 properties in the foreclosure process had been vacated by the homeowner. These “zombie foreclosures” represent 21 percent of all properties in the foreclosure process.
Owner-vacated properties have been in the foreclosure process an average of 1,031 days, nearly three years.
"One in every five homes in the foreclosure process nationwide have been vacated by the distressed homeowner, but it is closer to one in three foreclosures in some cities," Blomquist added. "These properties drag down home values in the surrounding neighborhood and contribute to a climate of uncertainty and low inventory in local housing markets."
The state with the most owner-vacated foreclosures was Florida with 54,908, representing 36 percent of the national total. Illinois (15,512), New York (10,880), New Jersey (8,595), and Ohio (7,780) rounded out the top five states for owner-vacated foreclosures.
Foreclosure starts fell back to 51,842, their lowest level since December, 2005. A total of 47,715 U.S. properties were scheduled for a future foreclosure auction in February, down 15 percent from the previous month and down 21 percent from a year ago.
Bank repossessions (REO) were 30,307 in February, up less than 1 percent from January. Year-over-year, REO properties were down 33 percent.
States with the highest foreclosure rates in February were Florida, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and Illinois.
Among metros with populations of 200,000 or more, Florida held nine of the top ten metros for foreclosure rates in February. The dubious honor of leader went to the Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville metro, where one in every 296 housing units were in foreclosure—nearly four times the national average.