The number of foreclosures in the area is increasing and it's a slow time of year for the real estate market, so a Duluth office of a nationwide mortgage company is trying an idea that has gotten things moving in other places: foreclosure tours.

Anecdotal reports from real estate agents indicate 150 or more houses are in some stage of foreclosure in the Duluth area, which is why Mike Locker and Gloria Allan of Countrywide Financial, a nationwide mortgage lender, decided to experiment with a "Parade of Foreclosures" tour in February and March.

The first 15 people to sign up for each of the three, two-hour tours -- set for this Sunday, March 9 and March 30 -- will be taken to see five or six properties. A different agent will conduct each tour. The tourgoers must be qualified as buyers through Countrywide or, if they're qualified through another lender, they can take the tour for $25. Houses on the tour won't necessarily be owned by Countrywide.

Foreclosure tours are big in areas that have large numbers of foreclosures, such as California, but this is the first time the concept has been tried in Duluth, Locker said. "We're kind of piggybacking on the West Coast," he said.

Foreclosure is a legal process in which ownership rights are terminated, often for default on the mortgage. In many cases, homeowners took out adjustable-rate mortgages with very low teaser rates that began to be adjusted upward and monthly payments have become too costly.

"A lot of buyers are afraid to buy a foreclosed property because there's damage to them," Locker said. But he pointed out that some lenders have programs that let buyers finance the house and the repairs at one time, which means one mortgage and one payment a month.

Tod Venberg, president of the Duluth Area Association of Realtors and owner of WHY USA Northland Realty, will lead the second tour. He said that some foreclosed homes "are really nice, but I've seen some that the people were really mad and they trashed the place out."

Foreclosures can be good buys, but not all are being sold at bargain-basement prices. "Foreclosures have gotten such a stigma now that people expect them to be a good deal," said Michelle Lyons, owner of Port Cities Realty, which has about 90 foreclosures that either are on the market or soon will be. Agents in her company are involved with the first foreclosure tour.

Just recently, sales of foreclosed homes have begun to pick up, said Lyons, who gets two or three new foreclosure listings each week.

The Duluth area hasn't been hit as hard as many areas such as Detroit, Las Vegas and cities on the West Coast. But the number is rising. The number of foreclosures filed in the St. Louis County recorder's office last year reached about 370 -- a small number compared with the 17,000 mortgages filed, on average, each year. However, the number of foreclosures has steadily risen in all but one of the past six years. The total more than doubled from 176 filed in 2002.

The recorder's office doesn't have figures on how many properties were foreclosed by subprime lenders, had adjustable rate mortgages or were redeemed after foreclosure.

While banks don't want to own homes, foreclosures they put on the market aren't necessarily going to be the deal of a lifetime, Lyons said. "If it's the deal of a lifetime, everyone is jumping on it," she said. Banks want to get their money back. On the other hand, Lyons noted that she is seeing a few banks settle for less than what was owed.

Prospective buyers looking for foreclosures aren't likely to see them advertised using the word "foreclosure." Real estate agents have that information and will share it with clients. Lyons said agents also can get lookers on e-mail lists so they know immediately when foreclosures go up for sale.

Locker said he doesn't know how successful the foreclosure tours will be, but if they're well received, he expects to offer more in April and May. "We're in a trial-and-error period," he said. "This has never been done here."