Marin foreclosure notices tick up after pandemic pause

Home foreclosures are on the rise in the Bay Area after grinding to a halt for most of the pandemic, although the impact in Marin County is relatively light so far, according to a market analysis firm.

Real estate experts say the recent spike signals more of a return to normal rather than a coming housing crash, though foreclosures are primed to continue trending upward in the months ahead.

In Marin County, foreclosure starts are up 38% for the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2021, said Rick Sharga, an executive at Attom Data Solutions in Irvine.

However, the Marin increase is mild compared to other areas. Nationwide, foreclosures are up 153% during that period, Sharga said.

He also said the year-over-year increase was somewhat distorted because the 2021 foreclosures were artificially low. This was because of pandemic-related government protections for homeowners.

From the first half of 2019 to the first half of this year, foreclosure starts declined about 37% in Marin, Sharga said. Nationwide, the decline was 1%.

During the first half of this year, foreclosure starts in a five-county section of the Bay Area — Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo County and San Francisco — jumped 90% compared to the same period in 2021, according to new data from Attom. Still, the number of foreclosure filings — one for every 1,419 residences in that area — remains below pre-pandemic levels.

“Marin numbers are up year over year but far less than some of the national numbers or even in the state of California,” Sharga said. “The level of foreclosure activity simply hasn’t started to come back as quickly as some other places, which is a good thing.”

Foreclosure activity, or foreclosure starts, mean that homeowners received a notice initiating the process, not necessarily that they ultimately lost their homes.

“We would need to see an exponential increase before the Bay Area market would start to feel an impact,” said Sharga. “It’s unlikely we’ll see enough foreclosed homes entering the market to have much of an effect on pricing.”

Sharga said that’s thanks in large part to forbearance plans offered by the federal government and private lenders allowing struggling homeowners to pause their mortgage payments during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, a $1 billion statewide mortgage relief program available to an estimated 13,000 Bay Area households has helped thousands of borrowers.

But since a foreclosure moratorium on federally backed mortgages expired in July 2021, and many banks around the same time restarted foreclosures on private loans, homeowners who became delinquent prior to the pandemic or haven’t been able to take full advantage of emergency programs have been increasingly losing their homes.

Pandemic programs are also winding down for renters. Final statewide eviction protections expired at the end of last month, though some Bay Area cities and counties have passed their own eviction moratoriums that remain in effect.

Marin County had 72 foreclosure starts during the first half of this year, according to Attom. That compares with 52 last year, 91 in 2020 and 114 in 2019.

In San Francisco, the East Bay and the South Bay, the 1,707 foreclosure filings so far this year represent a 17% decrease from the same period in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit. That’s also less than half the 4,555 starts in those areas during the first six months of 2016, when foreclosures were still falling from their Great Recession peak in the late 2000s.

Contra Costa County’s foreclosure filing rate this year was 0.12% of all residences, or one in every 833. Alameda County had a rate of 0.08%; Santa Clara County, 0.06%; San Mateo County, 0.05%; and San Francisco County, 0.04%.

Sharga expects foreclosures to continue to increase and return to at least pre-pandemic levels in the Bay Area and across the country by the middle of 2023. But he warned that persistent inflation and recent interest rate hikes could trigger an economic downturn hitting middle-income homeowners and causing foreclosures to “return to slightly higher-than-normal levels a little bit more quickly.”

Jason Estavillo, a foreclosure attorney in Oakland, said another factor could lead to a greater surge in foreclosures. In recent weeks, he’s been flooded with calls from homeowners worried their forbearance agreements are now ending.

“Banks are asking for a balloon payment up front of all arrears during the forbearance period,” Estavillo said.

The spike in foreclosure activity comes as the scorching pandemic Bay Area housing market is entering a cooling phase amid rising interest rates squeezing buyers and a growing supply of homes for sale. The median sales price of existing single-family houses in the region dipped 7% from May to June to $1.4 million, according to the California Association of Realtors.

In Marin, the median price of detached homes fell from $2.025 million in May to $1.875 million in June, a decline of just over 7%, according to data from the county assessor’s office.

Real estate experts agree foreclosures are having relatively little to do with the recent price softening. That’s in contrast to the 2008 housing crash and recession, when millions of homeowners across the country defaulted on risky, adjustable-rate mortgages and drowned the entire home market.

But John Heckenberg, a San Mateo-based real estate agent with Compass, said more foreclosure activity could have the effect of discouraging some house hunters as the broader economy appears more unstable.