Foreclosure activity in Minnesota and most of the U.S. fell slightly in November compared with last year, a sign that improvements in the economy and a stabilizing housing market are starting to ease stress on homeowners.

Nationwide, notices of default, auction and repossession were down 3 percent from October and 19 percent from last year. That was the 26th consecutive month of year-over-year declines.

In Minnesota, foreclosure notices were down only slightly compared with last year, falling a little more than 1 percent. Compared with October, however, notices were up more than 20 percent.

The nationwide figures included an annual decline in foreclosure starts -- default warnings or notice of a scheduled auction -- but the first increase in bank repossessions. That's a sign lenders are working on a backlog of properties that have been moving along through the foreclosure process, said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac.

"Foreclosures are continuing to hobble the U.S. housing market as lenders finally seize properties that started the process a year or two ago -- and much longer in some cases," he said.

Blomquist said the month-to-month increase in foreclosure activity in Minnesota is neither alarming nor unique. Several states showed a double-digit increase in foreclosure starts compared with last year, a phenomenon that's largely a reflection of differences in the way foreclosures are processed. The data also tend to be volatile from month to month.

What's more important, he said, is the foreclosure rate in Minnesota is lower than the national average. Nationwide, one in every 728 housing units received a notice, compared with one in 918 in Minnesota. And, he said, foreclosure discounts in Minnesota are much smaller than the national average, signaling strong demand and a sense of confidence that doesn't exist in all states.

Blomquist said the drop in overall foreclosure activity is evidence the worst of the foreclosure crisis is over, but the nation isn't out of the woods because lenders are still adjusting to new rules that govern the way foreclosures are processed. In addition, there are dramatic differences in the way home seizures are handled from state to state.

In Minnesota, foreclosure starts were up 32 percent from October, but down 16 percent from last year. Actual repossessions were 13 percent higher than in October and 20 percent higher than last year.

The trend was similar across the country, with bank repossessions rising 5 percent compared with last year -- the first annual increase in 25 months. Compared with October, repossessions were up 11 percent. Annual increases in repossessions were highest in Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri.

Ed Nelson, communications manager for the Minnesota Homeownership Center, a group that provides counseling to homeowners who have trouble making their payments, said this matches what counseling centers across the state are seeing.

"Overall, the trend continues to be headed in the right direction, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the numbers are still extremely elevated over traditional foreclosure numbers," he said.

He noted that while the overall numbers are down, there's been a slight uptick in the number of consumers seeking help -- a cause for concern in the coming year. "Until we see sustained, long-term gains in the employment numbers, we'll continue to see Minnesota families struggling with their mortgage."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376