Getting to the heart of the foreclosure problem is like manipulating the layers of those hollow wooden Russian dolls that nest within one another.
The national foreclosure rate — the one we usually hear about on the news — doesn't have much direct bearing on us. But if you peel away the first layer, you're left with the more meaningful Florida rate, which breaks down further to reveal the Tampa Bay area rate.
More relevant still is the county-by-county rate, which splinters further into municipal, or even neighborhood, rates.
Let's start with the United States. The national rate for the first three months of 2008 was 1 in every 159 households. That comes to 803,489 foreclosure homes. While the calculation includes collapsed real estate markets like Miami's and Detroit's, it's leavened with oil-happy housing markets in Texas and slow-to-deflate neighborhoods in North Carolina.
Moving on to Florida, things turn nasty. One in every 73 households was cursed with a foreclosure filing from Jan. 1 to March 31. The total is 119,229 homes. One of the worst spots is the Cape Coral-Fort Myers market, where foreclosures hit 1 in every 26 households.
You might be glad to know that the Tampa Bay area lifted the Florida average a tad. Our rate in the first three months of 2009 was 1 in every 80 households, or 16,464 homes. That's about twice as bad as the national average, but we had fewer problem mortgages than Central Florida rival Orlando.
Alas, not every county in the Tampa Bay area is equally foreclosure resistant. Pinellas and Pasco counties came off the best in the region. Pinellas' rate was 1 in every 99 households. Pasco's was 1 in every 85 households.
That left Hillsborough and Hernando counties playing the lead anchor to Pinellas and Pasco's billowing top sail. Hillsborough's rate was 1 for every 68 households. Hernando's was a bit worse at 1 for every 66 households.
Nailing down exact rates for communities and ZIP codes and neighborhoods is more problematic, but let's stick to what we know:
The city of St. Petersburg is suffering more than unincorporated Pinellas. Last year, the United Way reported that St. Petersburg had 27 percent of the county's population but 42 percent of its foreclosures.
Brandon and Riverview in Hillsborough remain hot spots for mortgage defaults. South Tampa and Carrollwood are less affected. In Pasco, Dade City in the extreme northeast corner of the county has only a fraction of the foreclosures of Holiday in the extreme southwest.
Gauging the health of a real estate market requires a gaze through the microscope, even if the image in the glass is a plague of foreclosures.