DATELINE - The backlog of foreclosure cases got so bad that the Florida State Courts Administrator prodded judges in September with a new data collection system.
In Highlands County alone, 1,471 cases were pending in 2012, the height of the foreclosure bubble. That same year, even though Circuit Court chief judge David Langford assigned himself to the problem, banks took back 896 houses and lots from property owners.
In 2013, however, the real estate market turned around and fewer foreclosures have been filed, said Court Clerk Bob Germaine.
"They're moving down," Germaine said. "The judges are really working these dockets."
In 2000, only 280 properties were foreclosed in the county. Then the housing industry sprouted wings, banks began to loan money on dubious income statements, the inflated economy could not sustain itself, and the bubble collapsed.
From 2007 to 2008, foreclosures doubled, from 676 to 1,291. In 2009, distressed properties topped 1,500.
"But the banks were in no hurry," Germaine said. Pending cases languished because once the banks owned the properties, they had to pay neighborhood association fees, mow lawns and fix leaks.
"Now, we do case management," Germaine said. "The judges, they order the parties into the court, and they say, 'This case needs to move.' If it doesn't within a year or so, the judge will just dismiss it. And the banks have to pay the filing fee all over."
If the claim is $50,000 or less, the forecloser pays a $400 filing fee, $905 for over $50,000, or $1,905 for over $250,000.
Investors have returned to the market, snapping up low-priced bargains. Also, retirees are selling their northern homes and moving to Highlands County, real estate agents said earlier this year.
Even so, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported, more than 250,000 pending defaults still clog courts from Miami to Pensacola.
At the current pace, it will take another three-and-a-half years to clear the system completely, the newspaper said.
The FY2013-14 Foreclosure Initiative adopted three recommendations: more active judicial management, more attention on older cases, and more technology to help judges view and issue court documents electronically.
"Now, everyone has their paperwork in order, and we're seeing these move at an incredible pace, compared to the past five years," Jack McCabe, a Florida real estate consultant, told the Sarasota newspaper.
Pending foreclosures were down 16 percent from the first half of the year and 29 percent from July 2012, according to Sarasota district court records.
Since June 2012, 1,100 cases have been filed, but the backlog was reduced by 467, Germaine's records for Highlands County show.
Now, a foreclosure sale calender is listed at hcclerk.org. Auctions are held in the jury room in the Highlands County Courthouse basement.
"But if you come here to bid on a property, we tell everyone, 'Buyer beware,' because the clerk's office doesn't guarantee title. Get a title company or an attorney to check there are no existing liens. We had one guy who bought a second mortgage and didn't realize it. They look just like the first mortgage."
Successful bidders must pay in full by the end of the day.
"People want to take the deed to the bank and then get a loan. You can't do that," Germaine said.