Foreclosure Flux

Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac’s monthly foreclosure reports can both inform and confuse, depending on who’s covering the information.

An Associated Press story on the foreclosure listing firm’s latest report says 110,000 properties were at some stage of “foreclosure activity” in May, up 12 percent from April and 16 percent from May of last year. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Sun reported that 206,000 U.S. properties were in the foreclosure process in May, “up 9 percent from the previous month, but down 4 percent from May 2011,” again attributing the information to RealtyTrac.

So, what’s the correct figure?

Foreclosure figures have their layers. Many reports highlight foreclosure “activity” as being anything from a notice of default for a first missed payment to a foreclosure auction-sale listing. Some statistics include the number of actual formal bank repossessions, while others leave that figure out. RealtyTrac identifies new foreclosure activity using all three of these elements. Whether one publication uses all three or only one or two can create headlines using the most sensitive words in journalism today —“increase” and “decrease”—words that sway public views and confidence.

To add another wrinkle, both AB 284—the robo-signing law that increased foreclosure paperwork for banks—and February’s $25 billion settlement between states and banks are boosting short sales. Some short sales have notices of default tied to them, while others don’t. The way short sales are calculated in so-called future foreclosure “activity” will make for more interesting reporting and maybe some consumer mood swings in the months ahead.