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While Elk County may have weathered the housing crisis better than other parts of the country, some local realtors say the area is experiencing an emerging nationwide trend which has seen foreclosure rates climbing steeply, in the double digits, in just a matter of months.
According to Fitch, a global rating agency, national foreclosure rates have jumped 14 percent between the second and third quarter of 2011.
Elk County Chief Deputy Theresa Merritt reports witnessing a sharp rise in the number of foreclosure complaints being filed, as well as the number of foreclosure sales in the county, over the past few months.
"For about a year it had kind of stabilized, if not slowed down a bit, and now in the last two months, we have no idea where it's all coming from," Merritt said.
According to the Elk County Sheriff's office, in 2008 the number of complaints totaled 68 with 42 finalized sales. The year 2009 saw an increase to 90 complaints, with only 26 houses sold. In 2010, 75 complaints were filed and of that number, 47 were sold. Finally, this year has seen 37 complaints with 17 sold and 14 still pending, with more going into foreclosure every day.
"The two previous years were really bad, then it seemed to level out but within the last few months I am now booked all the way through March for sheriff sales and I have them every week," Merritt said.
Experts speculate the increase is the result of banks catching up with backlogged paperwork related to delinquent loans and lendees, and in doing so they are filing a greater number of complaints.
Cathie Bauer of Anderson and Kime Realty in St. Marys seconded this assertion.
"It could be that the banks just had such a backlog that they're catching up and they're now putting the homes in foreclosure that they've had piles and piles of files (for) on their desks and they're just getting to this whole new group, it could be that. Sometimes it's a matter of the lenders processing through and throwing a whole bunch out onto the market again," Bauer said.
Another possibility offered by Bauer to the explain the local rise in foreclosure rates is a delayed consequence of layoffs in the form of the exhaustion of unemployment compensation benefits.
"After 99 weeks, with extensions, these people who were laid off and collecting unemployment were getting these unemployment benefits; previous to that they had brought cars and four-wheelers and run up credit cards, all those things that are so much fun to do when you have a good income. Then they lost their job and went on unemployment, they still have all those bills and a lot of them can't afford to take a job that pays five or 10 dollars less an hour, or even more of a decrease because they can't pay their bills, but when their unemployment runs out they really can't pay their bills and that could be why there are more foreclosures, too," Bauer said.
Merritt said she cannot attest to the factors causing the recent surge, but the constant activity within the past months has been a drain on the resources of the sheriff's office.
"Right now I really wish it would stop, because right now our deputies are really at this point having trouble keeping up. It has not been like this for probably at least a year. It's not that it stopped at any point, it was relatively steady, you always had two or three cases going, but now we have seven or eight going at a time," Merritt said.
Merritt said that as two cases are settled, two more are initiated the very next day, it seems.
"Within the last month or so, they constantly have had seven or eight open cases that they are working on and trying to get done, and every time they [deputies] close one, I'm opening another one; you just can't keep up," Merritt said.