Real Estate

Merced takes turn at top for lost homes

It's a title no one wants, but counties in the Northern San Joaquin Valley keep passing around the undesirable honor of having the nation's highest home foreclosure rate.

Merced County is the latest to get that title, pushing Stanislaus County into the No. 2 spot and San Joaquin County into No. 3.

September filings show Merced County had the nation's highest percentage of homes in the foreclosure process. An estimated 1 in 68 homes there received some type of foreclosure notice last month, according to RealtyTrac, which monitors such statistics.

That's more than eight times the national rate of 1 in 557 homes.

Merced County had a record-high 1,137 foreclosure filings last month, including notices of default, notices of trustee sale and homes repossessed by lenders.

Stanislaus County held the worst-in-the-nation foreclosure title in August, but it improved a bit last month. RealtyTrac reported 1,892 foreclosure filings in the county in September, which was 1 in 88 homes.

San Joaquin County, which was worst in the nation in July, also improved a little. It had 2,422 foreclosure filings, affecting 1 in 90 homes.

The three Northern San Joaquin Valley counties have been at or near the top of the dreaded foreclosure ranking every month for about a year.

Real estate experts blame the region's foreclosure woes on a "perfect storm" caused by mortgage rates adjusting to unaffordable levels at the same time home values have fallen and sales have slumped.

Many borrowers who had counted on refinancing or selling their homes before their adjustable mortgage rates went up have discovered that their property is worth less than what they owe on their mortgage.

Home values in the valley have declined an estimated 15 percent to 30 percent since the 2005 housing market peak, and about half as many homes have sold this year compared with last year.

When homeowners can't sell their homes for enough to pay off their mortgages and can't afford their monthly payments, their chances of foreclosure increase, unless they can convince lenders to lower interest rates or accept less than what they are owed.

Those who can't get such concessions often end up having their homes repossessed by lenders. Such foreclosure auctions happen almost daily on the county courthouse steps in Modesto, Stockton and Merced.

RealtyTrac said lenders repossessed 921 homes last month in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties. In September 2006, by comparison, 14 homes were taken back by lenders.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.