Fewer Haverhill people lost their homes to foreclosure last year than in 2010, but real estate sales remained stagnant.
The Merrimack Valley Housing Report, a publication of the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds, indicated a substantial drop in the number of property foreclosures and foreclosure notices between 2010 and 2011.
The report shows that in Haverhill:
Foreclosures dropped from 181 in 2010 to 119 in 2011, a dip of about 34 percent.
Notices of foreclosures dropped from 313 in 2010 to 164 in 2011, a 48-percent decline.
Mortgage transactions and the sales of homes of all kinds — including condominiums — decreased slightly. Sales declined from 1,144 in 2010 to 1,068 in 2,011, a 7 percent dip. Mortgage transactions — including original mortgages and refinancing — dropped from 1,974 to 1,679 in 2011, a 15-percent decline.
David Turcotte, a research professor for UMass Lowell and a co-editor of the report, said several factors are behind the changes. They included a federal tax credit in 2010 for first-time home buyers, which helped increase sales that year, and new legislation demanding more accountability in foreclosure cases, which slowed banks' ability to foreclose on homeowners who are late with mortgage payments.
"The whole foreclosure process has really been drawn out," Turcotte said.
Slacking sales mean home prices will remain steady or decline, which could attract first-time home buyers, but Turcotte said prices will decline more before the market really rebounds.
"There's good news and bad news in all of this," he said. "No one expects prices to jump up. The only way you're going to get more activity in the coming years is if the prices drop further."
Haverhill real estate agents agree the city has had a buyer's market for homes during the past two years, but question how many more buyers will come to Haverhill for the savings.
"We might see (a sales) uptick in 2012, but I don't think it will be a big uptick," said Richard Rosa, owner of the real estate company Buyers Brokers Only.
Rosa said figures from the MLS Property Information Network, a listing service which includes Haverhill, indicated sales of single-family homes increased slightly from 2010 to 2011, while the median home price dropped by $20,000.
"When good stuff hits the market at a fair price, it will sell," he said.
Condominium sales in the city dropped from 218 in 2010 to 168 in 2011.
Rosa said speculation by experts that first-time home buyers would improve the Haverhill market has proven accurate, as the downtown revival and quiet neighborhoods like Bradford and Riverside have appealed to newcomers.
"A lot of young professionals are moving to Haverhill," he said. "They come here and have the best of both worlds."
Frank Novak, CEO of Novak Finer Homes Realty, said lower prices balance the unreasonably high prices of the past.
Novak said home sellers and buyers shouldn't view themselves as either losing money or finding a steal. Sellers who may take a loss on their property will ultimately make it back through reduced-price purchases they can make.
"The circumstances can change per quarter (every three months or so)," Novak said. "As is the case with everything cyclical, it's time for the economy to curve up."
Local mortgage providers and lenders said foreclosures may be declining because the recession has lasted so long.
"The bulk of them (foreclosures) should have already happened by now," said Thomas Mortimer, president and CEO of Haverhill Bank.
But he said delinquent mortgage payments are still common.
Mortimer said the reductions in sales could also indicate many homeowners are still "underwater'' — meaning the amount they owe is greater than the current value of their homes — and simply cannot consider selling.
He added, however, that both Haverhill Bank and Pentucket Bank have avoided the foreclosure nightmare facing larger banks, such as Wells-Fargo, by keeping open lines of communication with their clients and adjusting their payments based on the economy.
"The community banks tend to know their buyers better," he said. "We didn't need the government to tell us to modify our loans. We did that ourselves."