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Foreclosures stable in North Georgia as rate increases nationwide
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Nationally, more homes went into foreclosure this summer than in any three-month stretch since the housing market began to fall in 2006. In Hall County, however, the numbers are hovering at the same level.

"We've been trending around 300 foreclosures for some time and do not anticipate double or triple that," said local real estate expert Frank Norton Jr. of The Norton Agency. "We've already gone through the big surge and should see these numbers through the first half of the year before dropping into the 200s."

A total of 288,345 properties were lost nationwide to foreclosure in the July-September quarter, according to data released Thursday by RealtyTrac Inc., a foreclosure listing service. That's up from 270,000 in the second quarter, the previous high point in the firm's records dating back to 2005.

Banks have seized more than 816,000 homes through the first nine months of the year, and are on the way to seize 1.2 million by the end of 2010.

"The third quarter accelerated foreclosures because 12 months ago we saw major job losses, and the banks are trying to clean up their portfolio by the end of the year and move the inventory out by the end of December," Norton said. "It's unfortunate, but it's all a part of the overall economy cleaning itself up."

On Wednesday, officials in 50 states and the District of Columbia launched a joint investigation into the use of robotic signatures on foreclosure papers, and many owners may challenge foreclosures in court because of allegations that banks evicted people without reading the documents.

Norton isn't seeing much of the controversy in Georgia.

"We as a state have efficient foreclosure processes, and I don't foresee any challenges or lawsuits," he said. "For example, I see foreclosure notices in the papers, and one may appear one month and the next month it appears again because someone has corrected a title or problem. There seems to be more policing in Georgia."

Major national lenders have put a moratorium on foreclosures until the robotic signature issue is addressed. The delay could amount to a temporary lull followed by a spike in home repossessions early next year, which would further affect home sales and prices.

The states most affected by the foreclosure freeze accounted for 40 percent of all foreclosure activity in the third quarter and 36 percent of homes taken back by lenders, RealtyTrac said. Sales of homes by lenders made up 18 percent of all U.S. home sales in September, the firm said.

"Someone needs to put their eyes on every foreclosure and explore if the owner qualifies for government stimulus money or any method to keep the homeowner in the house," Norton said. "In Georgia, when a bank forecloses, they're only recovering about 65 to 68 percent of their costs. If they were to negotiate with a short sale, which is taking a little less, they could recover about 81 to 82 percent."

Norton foresees a "huge" short sale market in 2011 and recently sent about 95 percent of his agents to a continuing education workshop to certify them in short sales to help customers.

"It's to the banks' advantage to work through a short sale than to foreclose," Norton said. "One of the things we have to pay attention to is trying to mitigate their losses by working with the seller and homeowner. We're seeing this a little bit more."

Economic woes, such as unemployment or reduced income, continue to be the main catalysts for foreclosures this year.

"About 20 to 30 percent are still subprime, and many are Hispanic, but most that we see are still job loss. I still expect 300 to 325 in the Hall County market over the next six months," he said. "If job loss stabilizes, it'll come down the second half of 2011, but there are still too many people with job loss foreclosures in the pipeline."

While bank repossessions rose in the third quarter, new defaults continued to decline.

About 270,000 properties nationwide received default notices, the first step in the foreclosure process, down 1 percent from the second quarter and down 21 percent from the same period last year, according to RealtyTrac, which tracks notices for defaults, scheduled home auctions and home repossessions.

More than 930,000 homeowners received a foreclosure-related warning between July and September, up nearly 4 percent from the second quarter but down 1 percent from the same period last year, RealtyTrac said. The latest tally translates to one in 139 U.S. homes.

The selling market hasn't completely stopped in northern Georgia. Norton's agents are still selling cabins in the woods, houses less than $250,000 and houses on Lake Lanier below $500,000.

"Right now we have hover buyers out there," he said. "When a new house comes on the market, they go see it immediately, but if it doesn't meet their exact needs, they go back to hovering."

The Associated Press contributed to this report