When Tammy Bucci bought a three-bedroom house in Abington this year for $174,000 from a lender that had foreclosed on the property, she knew the previous owner had paid $286,500 in 2006.
"I got an awesome deal. The house is gorgeous," said Bucci, who had not been seeking a foreclosure bargain. "I'm a single mom with three kids. I was just looking for something inexpensive," she said.
Bucci's house, with its new kitchen paid for by HSBC Mortgage Services, was one of 41 Montgomery County houses sold by lenders and other financial institutions - mostly after foreclosure - in September, based on when the deed was recorded.
The 39 percent decline in the price of Bucci's house seems extreme for a region with a relatively mild 6 percent drop in average home prices since the 2007 peak.
But an Inquirer analysis of September's sales of residential real estate in Montgomery County by financial institutions showed that prices fell an average of 29 percent if the previous sale occurred in 2003 or later, when price gains started accelerating.
By contrast, banks - often willing to take a discount when a foreclosed home is vacant - sold properties for an average of 25 percent more than the previous price if the earlier sale occurred before 2003, deeds showed.
On 36 foreclosed properties, banks lost 12 percent compared with the amount of principal owed when foreclosure was filed, according to court documents.
That overall loss includes 11 properties that were resold for more than was owed because the loans had been paid down and house prices increased over longer periods. PNC Bank even sold a house in Conshohocken for more than twice what was owed on the mortgage.
The data, a glimpse of the financial industry's slow grind through an immense backlog of foreclosed properties, show that despite the seriously slumping housing market, a homeowner who bought a house a decade ago could probably sell it now for more than it had cost.
However, that offers little consolation to a homeowner clinging to the memory of what houses down the street sold for at the giddy peak.
Montgomery County was chosen for the analysis because of the relative ease of data gathering compared with other suburban counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where bank sales of foreclosed real estate seem harder to track.
In Burlington County, for example, there were 27 bank sales of foreclosed real estate in September. There were 177 in Philadelphia during the month, according to Zillow.com, but many were sales of nonowner-occupied properties. That's because of a city intervention program that shields owner-occupied properties from a quick sheriff's sale.
For every person like Tammy Bucci, who has snared what she sees as a bargain amid the housing crash, there is a former homeowner who got an expensive loan to buy a high-priced house at the top of the market and then saw good fortunes crash along with the economy.
Among them is Harry Haller, a heating-and-plumbing contractor who kept busy during the housing boom working for real estate investors who flipped houses.
In early 2007, Haller, 38, bought one of the houses he had worked on for $333,000, borrowing all of the money.
The investor, Sal M. Mastrangelo, had paid $200,000 for the Plymouth Township house just a few months earlier, then put in new windows, bathroom, and kitchen, plus new plumbing. After all that refurbishing work, "I didn't make that much money. It's not as glamorous as it looks," Mastrangelo said.
Haller and his family liked the four-bedroom house, but they did not get to stay long. About half of Haller's business revenue vanished with the housing collapse, making it hard to afford the $2,800 mortgage payments, not including taxes and insurance.
Haller tried to refinance to a lower interest rate, but he was turned down several times before receiving an offer to refinance into a $390,000 loan, which he turned down because he knew the house was not worth that much. The holder of his high-interest loan, an entity called SABR Mortgage Loan 2008-1 REO Subsidiary-1 L.L.C., foreclosed in July 2009 and took possession of the house last May at sheriff's sale.
Knowing that SABR sold the house for $235,000, 29 percent less than he owed in principal, is hard for Haller to take. "I'm angry. I'm frustrated," said Haller, who paid about $60,000 on the house over two years and took a second-shift job as a pipe fitter/maintenance man to supplement his business.
Haller, his wife, and three children are now living with his wife's mother and grandmother. "It's tough. It still is," he said of the whole family's adjustment to tighter living conditions.
Efforts to contact the buyer of Haller's house on Wayland Road, David J. English, who borrowed $188,000 for the purchase, were unsuccessful.
Many houses undergo significant damage after foreclosure, accounting for some of the price decline, buyers said. Sometimes the house is ransacked before eviction. Other times the house is not properly cared for while vacant.
Jeryl Knechel, president of Knechel Realty L.L.C., of Harleysville, paid $118,000 for a foreclosed house in North Wales that had last sold for $183,000 in March 2007. He then had to spend $35,000 to get it into condition for renting because it was not properly winterized, he said.
"There was ice in the toilet," plus broken radiators and water damage to the ceilings, Knechel said. "I probably still paid too much."
The reasons for a sharp price drop are not always so obvious. For example, Briarwood Properties L.L.C., a Pottstown real estate firm, sold a 980-square-foot house in that city for $144,000 in February 2008.
The buyer, who had a $142,871 mortgage with a Federal Housing Administration guarantee, died in an automobile crash four months later. After foreclosure, the house was taken over last March by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the FHA.
HUD's agent listed the house for $125,000 in April and, in steps, rapidly reduced the asking price to $81,250 by July. It finally sold for $56,950 - back to Briarwood.
The president of Briarwood, Allen D. Davidheiser Sr., also has a Pottstown real estate brokerage, Real Estate Professionals Inc. That firm has the Cape Cod on the market for $114,900. When contacted for comment, a receptionist at the firm said: "We're not interested."
Meanwhile, HUD paid a $156,000 claim on the guaranteed loan, for a loss of nearly $100,000 on the loan, a third higher than the $75,000 average loss nationwide in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.