On first blush, South Carolina's share of homes in default, up for foreclosure auction or repossessed looks distressing: eighth highest in the United States.

But the ranking takes place during a steady two-year decline in the national foreclosure count - leaving the state as one of the larger slices of a steadily shrinking pie.

Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac found 112,498 properties nationwide were reported as in foreclosure last month, off 10 percent from January and down 27 percent from a year ago. The national foreclosure total in February stands as the lowest since December 2006, a period of more than seven years.

RealtyTrac also uncovered a decline in so-called "zombie foreclosures," cases in which owners vacate their homes because they can't afford the mortgage payments.

As of the first quarter, distressed homeowners had walked away from 152,033 houses - not including bank-owned residences - which amounts to 21 percent of all properties in the foreclosure process. The homes had been in some stage of foreclosure on average for 1,031 days, or close to three years.

"Cold weather and a short month certainly contributed to a seasonal drop in foreclosure activity in February, but the reality is that new activity is no longer the biggest threat to the housing market when it comes to foreclosures," says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

He does see trouble areas in the future.

"The biggest threat from foreclosures going forward is properties that have been lingering in the foreclosure process for years," Blomquist says. Many of them are vacant, "with neither the distressed homeowner or the foreclosing lender taking responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of the home," he says.

"One in every five homes in the foreclosure process nationwide have been vacated by the distressed homeowner, but it is closer to one in three foreclosures in some cities," Blomquist says.

"These properties drag down home values in the surrounding neighborhood and contribute to a climate of uncertainty and low inventory in local housing markets."

By state, Florida holds onto its long-time lead in the rate of foreclosure, even as its activity fell 7 percent in February from a month earlier and was down 24 percent year over year.

In Florida, 1 in every 372 housing units was a foreclosure filing during the month, which is more than three times the national average.

While Florida's year over year foreclosure rate has been steadily declining, Maryland's rate has climbed annually for 20 consecutive months as of February. The state moved into second with 1 in every 557 housing units being a foreclosure filing.

The top 10 list also consists, in order, of Nevada at 1 in every 633 housing units a foreclosure filing; New Jersey, 1 in every 739 homes; Illinois 1 in every 811 units; Connecticut, 1 in every 898; Ohio, 1 in every 941; South Carolina, 1 in every 971; and Georgia and Wisconsin, each with 1 in every 1,011 housing units.

Among other state and local details:

- Michigan posted the largest increase in owner-vacated foreclosures, up 27 percent from September 2013; followed by New Jersey with a 24 percent increase and Nevada, up 21 percent.

- All but one of the top 10 metro foreclosure rates in February were Florida cities. The exception, Atlantic City, N.J., saw a 254 percent surge in foreclosure activity from a year ago.

For its periodic U.S. Foreclosure Market Report, RealtyTrac "provides a count of the total number of properties with at least one foreclosure filing" entered into the company's database each month. "Data is collected from more than 2,200 counties nationwide, and those counties account for more than 90 percent of the U.S. population," it says.

RealtyTrac Inc. describes itself as "the nation's leading source of comprehensive housing data, with more than 1.5 million active default, foreclosure auction and bank-owned properties, and more than 1 million active for-sale listings on its website."

According to the company, the information includes property traits, tax assessor records, bankruptcy status and sales history, along with "20 categories of key housing-related facts" provided by RealtyTrac subsidiary Homefacts.

For more information, visit www.realtytrac.com.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.