florida foreclosureIf the state of Florida were a brand, its symbols would be orange juice, Art Deco architecture and, unfortunately, delinquent mortgages. In the last quarter of 2010, more than 24% of home loans in Florida were in some stage of delinquency or foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers' Association's recently released National Delinquency Survey.

About 14% of Florida homes are actively in foreclosure, it says, meaning that a foreclosure action has been initiated by the lender but the mortgage has not been sold via foreclosure sale, nor has it been brought current by the homeowner or a workout such as a loan modification or short sale.Things were already bad in Florida, which has been plagued by one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates since the start of the housing crisis, with one in every 409 Florida households receiving a foreclosure filing in 2010, according to foreclosure database RealtyTrac.

But on top of suffering from the foreclosure-inducing factors of overbuilding and a 12% unemployment rate (compared with the 9% national average), Florida is a judicial foreclosure state, which means a judge must sign off before a foreclosed homeowner can be evicted. And it also means that lenders like Bank of America, Chase and Ally Financial (which services loans originated by GMAC) froze foreclosures and/or evictions there for several months at the end of last year, creating a backlog of delinquent homes in the foreclosure pipeline that is just now starting to thaw, and drain.

Florida's foreclosure rate is record-setting dismal, but in its mortgage misery the state certainly has company. Nevada ran a close second, with more than 10% of home loans in foreclosure, and New Jersey (7.3%), Illinois (6.5%) and Arizona (4.5%) rounded out the five states with the highest foreclosure rates in the final quarter of 2010, according to the MBA survey.

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Fortunately, the sun does seem to be peeking out to shine on the Sunshine State's real estate market. The MBA survey found that delinquency rates in general -- and foreclosure starts in particular -- are on the decline, in Florida and in 38 other states.

Nationally, all four of the MBA's major delinquency yardsticks were down over the last quarter: 0-90 day delinquency rates were down 91 basis points from the third quarter, the percentage of loans in the foreclosure process was down seven basis points in the same time frame, serious delinquencies (90 days late or more) fell 13 basis points from Q3 to Q4, and the combined share of mortgages that are delinquent and in foreclosure fell 22 basis points in the last quarter of last year.

The MBA folks urge consumers to take comfort in these numbers, and particularly in the drop-off in foreclosure start rates, with the association's chief economist, Jay Brinkmann, declaring that "we have clearly turned a corner." Brinkmann pointed out that "loans three payments or more past due have fallen . . . almost 28% over the course of the year."

If you own a home, this may portend a long-range recovery of home values. But bargain-basement trawling buyers-to-be should take note, and take action: The window of opportunity to scoop up a discounted distressed property may be closing. Even so, there's some time to finish saving up or boosting your credit score; this is one window of opportunity that will close very, very slowly.

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