The number of Riverside County homes slipping toward foreclosure dropped by 18.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012, compared to the same period last year, a real estate information service reported today.

Lenders sent default notices to 5,542 homeowners in Riverside County in the first quarter, down from the 2011 first-quarter total of 6,769, according to San Diego-based DataQuick.

Statewide, default notices were sent to 56,258 homeowners in the first quarter of the year, DataQuick reported. That was an 8.5 percent drop from the previous quarter's 61,517 notices and down 17.6 percent from the first quarter in 2011, when 68,239 default notices were sent.

Last quarter's number of default notices was at its lowest level in nearly five years.

"Prices peaked five years ago and then started to fall off a cliff," said John Walsh, DataQuick president. "Foreclosure activity goes up when property values decline, and the worst of that decline was happening three years ago. Right now, property values in many areas appear flat."

Default notices do not always lead to a home foreclosure, according to DataQuick. Some homeowners emerge from the foreclosure process by bringing their payments current, refinancing or selling the home.