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Monthly foreclosures in Massachusetts at 6-year low

Only 371 homes were taken in October

Just 371 Massachusetts residents lost their homes to foreclosure in October, a 52 percent drop compared with the same month in 2011 and the lowest monthly total in almost six years.

October numbers from Warren Group, a private Boston company that tracks local real estate, also showed that between January and October, 6,861 property owners lost their homes to foreclosure, 2.5 percent fewer than during the first 10 months of 2011.

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Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of Warren Group, called the steep monthly drop in completed foreclosures astounding — a sign of an improving housing market and successful state and federal programs meant to cut down of the number of home-takings.

“The deeds are quite a story,” Warren said, and “another strong indicator of a housing market recovery.’’

But the October numbers were shadowed by an increase in foreclosure initiations. Lenders sent foreclosure petitions — the first step in a seizure process — to 1,458 Massachusetts borrowers, 22 percent more than during last October.

Between January and October, 15,334 homeowners were introduced to the foreclosure process, a 44.5 percent increase compared with the first 10 months of 2011, according to Warren Group. Last year’s numbers, however, were artificially depressed because lenders slowed foreclosures following national scrutiny into alleged sloppy and fraudulent practices.

Warren said petition numbers this year are probably a more accurate measure of the marketplace. He said the number of foreclosures started in 2012 is unlikely to exceed 2010 figures, before some lenders’ employees were accused of “robosigning” — approving property seizures without reviewing paperwork.

Tim H. Davis, a research consultant for the public nonprofit Massachusetts Housing Partnership, attributed the diverging directions of petitions and foreclosures partly to the increase in so-called short sales, a process through which borrowers sell a home for less than the size of the mortgage. It’s not an “optimal” option, he said, because people still lose their homes, but short sales can help put more properties back into the market.

Davis referred to a recent Massachusetts Housing Partnership report that found a statewide slowdown in the number of distressed properties, even though the real estate market in some communities — including Brockton and Springfield — is still languishing.

“There are still a lot of properties out there where families are in [mortgage] default,’’ he said.

To alleviate that, housing advocates and some state officials are pushing for new measures to help homeowners on the brink of financial disaster.

Barbara Anthony, the state’s undersecretary of consumer affairs and business regulation, favors proposed regulations that would prohibit mortgage servicers from starting a foreclosure when a borrower already is engaged in a loan modification process with a lender.

The rules also would force mortgage servicers to help a homeowner avoid foreclosure if it makes more financial sense than taking back a property. The regulations are intended to expand a new state law that forces lenders to negotiate with homeowners saddled with predatory, or high-interest, loans.

“For years, we have heard homeowners say, ‘I don’t understand why a lender is going to go forward with this foreclosure’,’’ Anthony said. “We tried the old way, now we are looking at a more sensible approach.”

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jbmckim.
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