Nationwide, more than 274,000 homes received at least one foreclosure-related notice last month. That was down 10 percent from December, but still 18 percent higher than a year ago, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine, Calif-based foreclosure listing service.
Contributing to the monthly drop was a decision by government-controlled mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to suspend foreclosure sales during the winter holidays. Plus, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist brokered a deal in which lenders in that state agreed to a 45-day halt to new foreclosure petitions.
But those efforts may not have much of an impact in the long run.
"If you don't do anything to get to the core problem, all you're doing is extending the housing downturn," said Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac's vice president for marketing. "It's only a good idea if there's a corresponding program that dramatically restructures hundreds of thousands of loans."
Meanwhile, a federal regulator on Wednesday urged more than 800 thrift institutions to suspend all foreclosures while President Barack Obama's top economic officials develop plans to keep borrowers in their homes.
The Obama administration plans to spend $50 billion to combat foreclosures of owner-occupied, middle-class homes but is divulging few details. An announcement of the administration's housing plans is expected in the coming weeks.
Testifying before House lawmakers on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the government would provide incentives to "try to induce economically sensible restructuring of mortgages," but offered no specifics.
More than 2 million American homeowners faced foreclosure proceedings last year, and that number could soar as high as 10 million in the coming years, according to a report last month by Credit Suisse, depending on the severity of the recession.
The RealtyTrac report said nearly 67,000 properties were repossessed by lenders in January as the worst recession in decades, falling home values and stricter lending standards continue to sap the U.S. real estate market. That was up from more than 45,000 repossessed properties in January 2008, but down from 79,000 in December.
Geithner and Shaun Donovan, the new secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, met with officials from housing and other nonprofit groups, top bank executives and industry lobbyists Wednesday to hear proposals for how the new programs to fight foreclosures should be structured.
After the meeting, John Taylor, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer group in Washington, said he was optimistic the new administration would agree to use government dollars to buy up mortgages and remove them from complex mortgage-linked securities and restructuring them at more affordable levels.
He said support from government and industry officials for that idea was a "giant step forward" compared with opposition to such an approach by the Bush administration.
The Obama administration is also expected to back a push in Congress - opposed by the mortgage industry - to let bankruptcy judges alter the terms of primary home loans. Earlier this week, Obama said it "makes no sense" that judges are not allowed to do so. The mortgage industry argues that this prohibition allows lenders to charge lower rates.
In the RealtyTrac report, Nevada, California, Arizona and Florida had the nation's top foreclosure rates. In Nevada, one in every 76 homes received a foreclosure, while the number was one every 173 in California. At No. 5, Oregon, formerly a bastion of housing stability, made its first appearance close to the top of the list of foreclosure hot spots.
Rounding out the top 10 were Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, Idaho and Ohio. Among metro areas, Merced, Calif., was first, with one in every 59 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing. It was followed by Las Vegas and the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area in Florida.