National April foreclosure activity decreased 5 percent from March and was down 14 percent from April 2011, according to a report by RealtyTrac released Thursday. One in every 698 U.S. housing units had a foreclosure filing during the month.

RealtyTrac chief executive Brandon Moore attributed the drop in part to an increase in short sales, which are becoming a more common alternative to foreclosure among distressed properties.

In this 2010 file photo, a foreclosure sign sits atop a for sale sign in front of a single-family home in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

“More distressed loans are being diverted into short sales rather than becoming completed foreclosures,” Moore said in a statement. “Our preliminary first quarter sales data shows that pre-foreclosure sales — typically short sales — are on pace to outnumber sales of bank-owned properties during the quarter in California, Arizona and 10 other states.”

After three straight monthly increases, U.S. foreclosure starts — which include default notices or scheduled foreclosure auctions, depending on the state — decreased 4 percent from March to April. A total of 97,665 properties started the foreclosure process for the first time during the month, down 2 percent from April 2011.

“It is surprising the numbers are staying as low as they have this year,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac, noting that many analysts expected a wave of new foreclosures in the wake of a landmark settlement between the government and big banks over fraudulent foreclosure practices. That wave hasn’t come, at least on a national level, for several reasons, Blomquist said. For starters, the numbers are down in California, which represents about 20 percent of the foreclosure activity in the entire country.

Still, he said the overall decrease is “masking” the fact that foreclosures actually are up in places such as Florida, New Jersey and Indiana, among other states. Despite the overall decrease in foreclosure starts, 26 states posted monthly increases in foreclosure starts.

Despite the lower-than-expected activity, Blomquist believes the number of foreclosures will still rise this year.

“At the end of the day, 2012 is going to be bigger than 2011.”

He said he did not expect “normal” levels of foreclosures to return until at least 2014.

Eleven of the nation’s 20 largest metro areas documented annual increases in foreclosure activity, led by the Florida cities of Tampa (59 percent) and Miami (38 percent), RealtyTrac reported.

Among the 20 largest metros areas, cities posting the biggest annual drops in foreclosure activity included Seattle (54 percent), Phoenix (44 percent), San Francisco (34 percent), Washington (30 percent), Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif. (30 percent) and Los Angeles (28 percent).

In the Washington metro area, there were 1,530 properties with foreclosure filings last month, which was a 7.9 percent decrease from March.

Previously: Foreclosures reach their lowest level since 2007.

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