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NO END TO FORECLOSURES

Bay area filings drop from July to August, but for the state overall, it gets even worse.

It wasn't supposed to be this way in the summer of embryonic economic recovery and housing market stabilization: Increasing numbers of Florida homeowners are defaulting on mortgage payments, raising the possibility of another wave of foreclosures.

But hints of recovery show in the Tampa Bay area. August saw a 14 percent decline in foreclosure filings vs. July, continuing a slide visible for much of the year. Buyers have been swallowing up homes once owned by speculators, helping to stem a three-year free fall in prices.

The half-good-half-bad news comes from RealtyTrac, the oft-quoted real estate firm that keeps county-by-county foreclosure statistics.

RealtyTrac counted 62,401 new Florida foreclosure cases in August, a 10.5 percent rise from the 56,486 properties that filed for foreclosure in July.

Orlando and its suburbs accounted for more than half of that increase. Miami and Jacksonville produced much of the rest.

Tampa Bay reported 5,810 foreclosure filings in August, down from 6,767 in July, but up from the 5,298 cases in August 2008. Foreclosure cases declined month over month in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties but ticked up in Hernando County.

Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Sarasota-Bradenton, where the housing slump arrived first in 2005, showed the biggest drops in foreclosures. As in Tampa, Sarasota and Fort Myers buyers have been drawn to cut-rate houses built by investors during the boom.

In the United States overall, foreclosures were flat from July to August, but RealtyTrac feared future increases.

An example: Of the nation's $189 billion in "option ARM" home loans - those in which people can opt to pay less than a standard monthly payment - 46 percent are 30 days or more late in paying. Most of these 1 million mortgages are due to reset with higher interest rates in the next two years.

"There is still an ample supply of properties filling the foreclosure pipeline," RealtyTrac chief executive James Saccacio said.

Some economists predicted a late summer housing boomlet from the soon-to-expire $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit. That could help homes change hands before property owners descend into default.

In fact, home sales have been rising in the Tampa Bay area. And prices have largely stabilized since February. In a measure of how beat up the market has been, foreclosure and pre-foreclosure homes constitute close to 40 percent of Tampa Bay sales this summer.

The region's high unemployment - 11.3 percent in Tampa Bay - makes it harder for families to keep up with monthly house payments. And depressed home values guarantee many homeowners can't refinance their way out of their economic hole.

Economist Mark Vitner, who specializes in Florida for Wells Fargo bank, boils down the foreclosure problem to its basics: He assumes the United States has, based on current demand, 2.5 million more homes than it has buyers for. And builders haven't stopped their bulldozers.

"The supply keeps increasing," Vitner said. "That's a problem for the next few years."

James Thorner can be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

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FAST FACTS

State foreclosures by the numbers

Tampa Bay

14 percent Change from July to August

5,810 Foreclosure filings in August

Florida

10.5 percent Change from July to August

62,401 Foreclosure filings in August

Source: RealtyTrac

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