For the first time since the Great Recession, the number of Tucson-area homeowners who avoided foreclosure increased in 2012.

Of the 9,287 homes on which foreclosure proceedings were started, 37 percent of homeowners were able to sell or preserve their home, data from the Pima County Assessor's Office show.

That percentage had been steadily falling in recent years and hit bottom in 2011, when only 26 percent of distressed homeowners were able to avoid foreclosure.

Industry experts say the prevalence of short sales - where lenders and homeowners sell property for less than it's worth to avoid foreclosure - is one reason for the increase.

Many lenders are starting to see the benefits of the short sale, even through they may take a loss, said Sue Cartun, president of the Tucson Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.

"It's unfortunate that a seller is having to realize a sale without any appreciation or equity," she said, "but the short sales that are occurring have resulted in the change that is going on."

Ginger Kneup, a Tucson residential market analyst and owner of Bright Future Real Estate Research LLC, said banks' willingness to work with federal programs also helped preserve homes in 2012.

"It is all positive, in terms of the health of the market," she said.

One program funded by federal dollars offers money to offset underwater mortgages and to lower monthly payments.

Daniel Romm, legislative liaison and public information officer for the Arizona Department of Housing, said programs such as Save Our Home AZ have worked to force banks to be more flexible.

"It's good to see that they're coming around and willing to work with the program," he said. "It has gotten better. We've made several modifications."

Kneup called 2012 "the turnaround year" but said full recovery of the housing market is still years away.

"It is improvement and it's going in the right direction, but it's slow," she said. "We had a big setback. We've got a long way to go."

Barring any calamity in the nation, fewer foreclosures and slight increases in home prices will continue through 2013, Kneup said.

Slow recovery is healthy for Pima County, Cartun said.

"We do not want to see again what happened with the huge increase in home prices," she said. "That is not healthy. It was not healthy then, and hopefully we have learned our lesson."

Cartun said the big sigh of relief will be heard when the job market stabilizes.

"We need to see our jobs come back," she said. "When that happens, that will be the real turnaround."

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at or 573-4232.