In a welcome piece of news, the number of foreclosure filings in the country declined 8% in November, according to data released Thursday by RealtyTrac, an Irvine, Calif.-based firm that tracks such information.

Overall, more than 306,000 properties received a foreclosure filing (which includes default notices, auctions and repossessions) last month, or one in every 417 U.S. homes. That may sound high, but November represents the fourth consecutive month of reduced foreclosure activity. Year-over-year, foreclosures were up 18% compared to the same month one year ago.

RealtyTrac’s November report contained another positive tidbit for builders: Las Vegas, which had posted the highest foreclosure rate in the country among major metropolitan areas for the past four months, finally slid downward to the number-five spot, with a 33% monthly decline in foreclosure activity.  The new owner of the top spot? Merced, Calif., where one in every 83 homes received a foreclosure filing in November.

James J. Saccacio, RealtyTrac’s CEO, credited a number of efforts for the improved national foreclosure numbers.  “Loan modifications and other foreclosure prevention efforts, along with the recently extended and expanded home buyer tax credit, are keeping a lid on the most visible symptoms of the nation’s ailing housing market--foreclosures and home value depreciation,” he said, adding: “This is providing a welcome respite for the real estate industry, but a full recovery will only come when unemployment recedes to normal, healthy levels and when availability of credit reaches a more rational balance between the extremes of the past few years.”

Unfortunately, job losses continue to be a problem for the American economy, with the national unemployment rate expected to stay above 10% into 2010.

In terms of regional trends, four big states—California, Florida, Illinois, and Michigan—continue to report high foreclosure rates. According to RealtyTrac, those states represent more than half, or 52%, of foreclosure activity across the country.

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.