Rise in foreclosures 'a shock'

February saw an unexpected jump in foreclosure filings as the weak economy puts more pressure on borrowers.

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The foreclosure picture suddenly darkened again in February.

More than 74,000 homes were lost to bank repossessions during the month, up from 67,000 in January, according to a regular monthly report from RealtyTrac, the online marketer of foreclosed properties. Nearly 1.2 million have been lost since the foreclosure crisis hit in August 2007.

The number of foreclosure filings rose 6% during the month after falling 10% in January. Worse, filings leaped nearly 30% compared with February 2008. And the results confounded expectations: A downtrend had been expected due to the numerous foreclosure moratoriums in effect during the month.

"We were very surprised," said RealtyTrac spokesman Rick Sharga. "The moratorium were led by big players like Fannie and Freddie and all the major banks. It was supposed to cover the whole waterfront. The fact that foreclosures still went up was a shock."

A particularly troubling aspect of the report was that, for many borrowers, once they go into default, they never get out despite moratorium efforts. That's borne out by comparing bank repossessions - homes actually lost by borrowers - with total foreclosure filings: Nationally, repossessions increased 11% for the month, almost double the 6% rise for filings.

The same holds true for year-over-year figures: February filings jumped 30% compared with last year but repossessions rang up a 60% gain.

The reason so many people lose their homes once they are in default is partially attributed to the severe home price drops recorded in many of the worst-hit areas. When borrowers are severely underwater, owing more than their homes are worth, it removes an incentive to keep up with mortgage payments. Some simply walk away.

The worst hit states

Many states that had previously escaped the worst ravages of the foreclosure plague have started to feel the effects. In South Carolina, foreclosure filings, which include notices of default, notices of foreclosure sale and bank repossessions, skyrocketed 254% compared with last February. The state recorded a filing for every 818 households, the 20th highest rate among the states.

As foreclosures soared, so did South Carolina's unemployment. By January, that had reached 10.4%, the second highest rate, after Michigan, in the nation. It rose 1.6 percentage points higher than December, the biggest increase in any state, and it jumped 4.7 percentage points over the past 12 months, also more than anywhere else.

According to the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America CEO, Bruce Marks, poorly underwritten mortgages is still the main source of foreclosures in the state. "It continues to be problem mortgages," he said, "loans that were unaffordable from the start. But unemployment is adding to that."

NACA, which counsels at-risk borrowers and refinances many into low-cost mortgages, is throwing a counseling event in Columbia, S.C., this weekend. The agency expects to host more than 20,000 attendees and has already pre-registered more than 7,500 homeowners.

The dubious honor of worst foreclosure state still belongs to Nevada, where one of every 70 households had a filing. Foreclosures are up 156% from last February and 9% from January. More than 2,800 homes were repossessed by banks during the month.

Second was Arizona, with one filing for every 147 households, up 88% year-over-year and 23% from January. California, with nearly 81,000 filings, had more than any other state, with a rate of one for every 165 households. Florida had more than 46,000, one for every 188 households.

Other hard hit states were Idaho (one in 358), Michigan (one in 360) and Illinois (one in 369).

Worst hit cities

Among metro areas, Las Vegas, where one in every 60 housing units received a foreclosure filing in February, led all other cities with populations of 200,000 or more. Another Nevada city, Reno, had one for every 108 hosueholds, the eighth highest rate in the nation.

The Cape Coral, Fla., metro area had the second highest foreclosure rate in February, with one in 65 housing units.

The rest of the top 10 consisted of six California cities: Stockton (one in 67), Modesto (one in 68), Merced (one in 74), Riverside-San Bernardino (one in 80), Bakersfield (one in 85) and Vallejo-Fairfield (one in 111).

Phoenix rounded out the top 10, with one in every 110 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing. The Phoenix metro area posted the ninth highest foreclosure rate in February. To top of page

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