U.S. foreclosure activity rose sharply in March on an increase in bank repossessions, but dropped in the first quarter to the lowest mark in eight years, according to a report by industry firm RealtyTrac.

Foreclosures - foreclosure notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossession - were up 20% to a total of 122,060 last month, the group reported Thursday. That increase pushed foreclosure activity up 4% from year-ago levels, the first annual rise since September 2010. 

A total of 313,487 properties were at some stage of the foreclosure process in the first three months of the year, down 7% from the previous quarter. It also was an 8% drop from the first quarter of 2014. 

"Some of most stubborn foreclosure cases are finally being flushed out of the foreclosure pipeline, and we would expect to see more noise in the numbers over the next few months as national foreclosure activity makes its way back to more stable patterns by the end of this year," RealtyTrac Vice President Daren Blomquist said in a statement.

Bank repossessions surged 49% in March as lenders reclaimed 36,152 properties. Repossessions were up 25% from year-ago levels. 

"The March increase is continued cleanup of distress still lingering from the previous housing crisis; not the beginning of a new crisis by any means,” Blomquist said.  

Lenders started the foreclosure process on 53,514 properties in March, up 11% from February. That was a 3.9% decline from the same period last year.  

Scheduled foreclosure auctions also were up last month, rising 11% from February to a total of 50,760 properties. 

Florida had the highest foreclosure rates last month, followed by Maryland, Nevada, Illinois and New Jersey, RealtyTrac said.

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