Foreclosure filings and repossessions fell to their lowest level since 2007 last year.
Total filings, including default notices and bank repossessions were down 33% for the year to 2.7 million, according to RealtyTrac, the online marketer of foreclosed properties.
One in every 69 homes had at least one foreclosure filing during the year, while 804,000 homes were repossessed. That's a significant improvement from the peaks reached in 2010 -- when 1.05 million homes were repossessed -- and the lowest levels seen since 2007.
More than 4 million homes have been lost to foreclosure over the past five years.
While the declines seem like good news for the housing market, where a flood of foreclosed homes has depressed home prices, much of it is due to processing delays caused by fall-out from the "robo-signing" scandal that broke in late 2010.
During the year, banks spent more time making sure paperwork was legal and proper, creating a backlog in the foreclosure pipeline. As a result, the average time it took to process a foreclosure climbed to 348 days during the fourth quarter, up from 305 days a year earlier.
"Foreclosures were in full delay mode in 2011, resulting in a dramatic drop in foreclosure activity for the year," said Brandon Moore, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac.
However, Moore said there were "strong signs" during the second half of the year that lenders are working through foreclosure backlogs in certain markets. He expects foreclosure activity to rise above 2011's level but remain below the peak hit in 2010.
Low rates offer some help for homeowners
Early in 2011, many forecasters were predicting a wave of foreclosures due to resetting adjustable-rate mortgages, but low mortgage rates helped many borrowers refinance into more affordable loans, said Moore.
The government helped as well, through efforts like the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), which made refinancing easier for borrowers who owe more on their mortgage than their homes are worth.
Turning foreclosures into rentals
Government foreclosure prevention programs, including HARP and the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), have started about 5.5 million mortgage modifications since April 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Programs like HAMP and HARP have definitely made a dent in the foreclosure problem," said Moore "However, they are certainly not living up to their billing of preventing several million foreclosures. In addition, many [HAMP] homeowners fall back into foreclosure later on."
Of course, there were still plenty of factors working against homeowners in 2011, including the continued erosion in home prices. Falling prices rob homeowners of home equity, which they can tap if they need emergency cash.
Foreclosure hot spots
Hot spots for foreclosures remain mostly in "bubble states," where speculative investors helped drive up home prices beyond their fundamental values during the mid-2000s housing boom.
Nevada, where one out of every 16 households received some kind of default notice during the year, was the worst hit of all, a distinction it has held for the fifth consecutive year.
Arizona had the second highest foreclosure rate and California came in third. Florida, which had been running neck-and-neck with the other "Sand States" in past years, fell to seventh, behind Georgia, Utah and Michigan.
Among metro areas, Las Vegas suffered from the highest foreclosure rate in 2011. California put seven cities in the top 10, led by Stockton in the second slot. Other cities in the top 10 included Phoenix, which finished sixth, and Reno, Nev. was eighth.
By Les Christie @CNNMoney January 12, 2012: 8:18 AM ET