LOS ANGELES -- The evolution of the U.S. foreclosure crisis is increasingly diverging along state lines.
On a national level, fewer homes were placed on the foreclosure track last month than in August last year, when they hit a 17-year high, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
At the same time, so-called foreclosure starts increased almost exclusively in states like Florida and New York, where the courts must sign off on foreclosures, the firm said.
Conversely, in many so-called non-judicial states, like California and Arizona, the number of foreclosure starts declined versus August last year.
The pace of homes entering the foreclosure process is expected to decline gradually, barring another severe economic shock that sends the slowly rebounding housing market into a tailspin, experts say. But that decline is likely to continue playing out unevenly, in part because of the differing approaches to handling foreclosures from state to state.
In addition, some states have passed laws that effectively slow down the process, creating a backlog of foreclosure cases that will take longer to wade through.
Foreclosure activity has been declining in most non-judicial foreclosure states because they didn't build a huge backlog of pending cases during an industrywide slowdown in foreclosures last year. The slowdown stemmed from widespread claims that lenders had been processing foreclosures without verifying documents.
The slower process in states where courts play a role in foreclosures contributed to a logjam of pending foreclosure cases that now has lenders playing catch-up.
All told, 99,405 homes entered the foreclosure process in August, up 1 percent from July, but down 13 percent from August last year, RealtyTrac said.
The latest figure shows a marked slowdown in foreclosure starts since they peaked in April 2009 at about 203,000. But they're still well above the 34,000 recorded in May 2005, before the housing bubble burst.
Foreclosure starts posted annual increases in 18 states -- mostly in those where courts are involved in foreclosure cases. One of the exceptions was Washington state, a non-judicial state where foreclosure starts more than doubled.
Lenders there were catching up with foreclosures cases that had been delayed by a state law that took effect July last year and allowed borrowers facing foreclosure to request mediation, said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac.
"This trend in state legislation intervening in the foreclosure process in some of the non-judicial states, particularly over the past six months to a year, is actually going to prolong the time it takes to fully clear this backlog of foreclosure properties," he said.
Meanwhile, the number of completed foreclosures nationwide declined last month to 52,380. That's down 2 percent from July and down 19 percent from August last year, the firm said.
Home repossessions have been down on an annual basis the past 22 months. But they increased last month in 35 states, including Nevada, where they jumped 76 percent, and Oregon, where they climbed 57 percent.
Between January and August, banks completed foreclosures on 452,016 homes. At that pace, the nation is on track to end the year with 678,000 completed foreclosures, down from 800,000 last year, Blomquist said.
There are as many as 1.5 million homes already repossessed by banks or in some stage of the foreclosure process.
At the state level, Illinois had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation last month, a rate of one in every 298 households in some stage of foreclosure. Both foreclosure starts and completed foreclosures rose in Illinois last month.
Florida, California, Arizona and Nevada rounded out the top five states with the highest foreclosure rates in August.