As the real estate downturn searches for the escape pod that will carry it to upturn, so-called short sales, which might help, are not living up to their name.

Short sales are transactions in which the lender agrees to accept less than what the borrower owes on the mortgage.

A short sale now takes 306 days from start to finish, compared with 113 days in 2006, according to RealtyTrac, the Irvine, Calif., firm that tracks distressed-housing data nationally. By comparison, foreclosures take an average of 186 days after the initial documents are filed, compared with 178 days in 2006.

Yet, in January, there were more than 35,000 short sales nationwide, on pace for more than 105,000 pre-foreclosure sales for the first quarter.

That would be the highest quarterly total since the peak in the first quarter of 2009.

"Short sales have long held great promise as a market-based solution to the nation's foreclosure problem," said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

One reason for the decline in short sales since 2009, said Alex Charfen, CEO of the Charfen Institute for Certified Distressed Property Experts in Austin, Texas, was that the Obama administration had spent considerable effort providing the means to avert foreclosures and short sales through refinancings and mortgage modifications for qualified borrowers.

Still, there remains a pool of about five million mortgages that are either delinquent or in some of stage of the foreclosure process. This figure doesn't even account for the nearly 20 million borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than there houses are worth, Charfen said.

Typically, short-sale situations involve borrowers who may be up to date now but realize that they might not be able to make on-time payments down the road.

A short sale "is a strategic default" on your mortgage, designed to get a borrower out of financial trouble without having to do through the drawn-out legal tangle of the foreclosure process, said Charlie Engle, a vice president at RealtyTrac.

While it reduces the angst and embarassment of foreclosure, a short sale doesn't prevent your credit rating from suffering.

As the foreclosure crisis deepened in 2010, Fair Isaac, which developed credit scores (FICO), came up with a list of how many points your score would drop in a foreclosure or short sale.

Foreclosures and short sales had the same effect: A drop of 85 to 160 points, depending on the total score and credit history.

RealtyTrac report shows a 33 percent year-over-year increase in short sales in January 2012, with annual increases in 32 states. In 12 states, the number of short sales exceeds transactions involving houses repossessed by lenders through foreclosure.

Lenders appear to be more willing to do short sales "when compared with the alternative of foreclosure, followed by maintaining and marketing" a bank-owned property for sale, Engle said.

Main Line real estate broker John Duffy agrees, believing that "lenders are finally realizing that they have to get these mortgages off their books and also realize that the anticipated appreciation will not catch up to their mortgage amount."

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or@alheavens at Twitter.