MANATEE -- Foreclosures in Manatee County slid to their lowest mark in nearly six years last month as fewer homeowners fell into delinquency and banks strategically slowed the amount of properties seized.
But the progress was far less substantial in Sarasota and statewide, which continued a trend of modest improvements in April that had been building for much of the year.
Industry analysts have been at odds over whether the decline has had more to do with economic strides or the banks themselves, which became burdened with foreclosures backlogs following the widespread fraud issues in 2010.
Many experts believe lenders now are artificially stabilizing the market by holding repossessed houses longer than typical to keep the market from flooding -- an act that would strip profits from their own bottom line by causing prices to drop.
A resurgence of hiring in the labor market also has fewer workers falling behind on their mortgage, said Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida.
"This has been a long process of healing for the housing market and it's still going, so we should start seeing some positive data," he said. "It's not going to be a miracle turnaround, but it's prog
Manatee County reported 98 total foreclosures in April, a 79 percent plummet from March and a 74 percent fall from the same time last year, according to figures released Wednesday by RealtyTrac, which records default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions.
April was the best month of foreclosures for Manatee dating back to November 2006, when 80 foreclosures were logged. During the dark days of the foreclosure crisis, that tally was as high as 1,500, records show.
In Sarasota, the county's 622 total foreclosures in April only eased a modest 1.7 percent from March. Those numbers, however, remain 64 percent above totals from a year ago -- when foreclosures in Sarasota flirted with pre-recession lows due to the lender moratoriums.
Home defaults similarly rose over last year's pace in Charlotte, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties as well.
Foreclosure activity across the Sunshine State dropped 8 percent during the month but increased 26 percent from April 2011, boosting the state's foreclosure rate to the third highest in the nation. One in every 364 Florida housing units had a foreclosure filing in April, according to RealtyTrac.
There are now an estimated 198,863 foreclosed homes in Florida, with an average sale price of $112,093.
"The economy is improving but the foreclosure problem is here to stay," said Joseph Lehn, a Sarasota foreclosure attorney. "This is just a lull. There's no end in sight."
Despite the recent slowdown, which was monumental in Manatee, Lehn said threats of foreclosure and the level of homeowners 90 days past due on a mortgage remain as high as ever. That can be evidenced some by new foreclosure starts, which were down nationwide in April, but in Florida had jumped 43 percent since the previous April.
Realtors still see the recent progress as cause to cheer.
Even if short-lived, Manatee's foreclosure slowdown should benefit the housing market by keeping depressed inventories at bay, which will help restore existing home prices. That, in turn, will spark buyer interest in new homes -- ultimately driving an uptick in construction.
Existing home inventories already are on the decline, dropping 40 percent over the year to reach 5.2 months worth in March, pushing median sales prices north by 19 percent during that same time. That's largely due to a shortage of depressed housing, according to the Manatee Association of Realtors.
One foreclosure listed for $54,000 in Bradenton notched 23 offers this month, said Marcus Vanzant, broker and owner of Marcus & Co. Realty, which handled the transaction.
"That's just one example, and it means there's still 22 buyers out there looking for something," he said. "The market is pretty much over as we knew it. We get so many calls from people looking for homes in the $60,000 range that we just can't help because they're so far and few between."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.