Foreclosure activity dropped significantly in Sonoma County at the end of last year, but analysts weren’t sure whether it was due to improvement in the housing market.

Banks in the fourth quarter sent county homeowners 815 default notices, the first step in the foreclosure process, according DataQuick, a San Diego real estate information service. The notices declined 8 percent from a year earlier and were the lowest in three years, though still far higher than before the housing market began its collapse in 2007.

Trustees deeds, which record the actual loss of a home in foreclosure, fell 12 percent in the county from a year earlier to 391 homes. That was the lowest number in four years.

The county’s results mirrored those for the entire state, where notices of default and trustees deeds were each down nearly 12 percent from a year earlier.

“We are certainly seeing a lower level of foreclosure activity than a year or two ago,” said DataQuick President John Walsh. “The question is, how much of that decline is due to market conditions, and how much is due to policy changes that try to address economic distress and lower home values?”

Walsh noted that lenders today are waiting much longer than they did five years ago to file their notices for delinquent payments. Homeowners in California were a median nine months behind on payments when the lender filed the notice of default. The median borrower then owed $19,949 on a $333,036 mortgage.

In the last five years nearly 9,500 Sonoma County homeowners have lost their properties in foreclosure. Another group of more than 2,500 owners disposed of their properties in short sales, where the price was less than the amount owed on the mortgage.

— Robert Digitale