America’s housing depression continues to deepen, and could worsen in 2009, according to a leading rating agency.

The latest figures on home foreclosures shows they were up 57% in March compared with the same month last year and rose 5% compared with February.

The latest figures from RealtyTrac make depressing reading:

For the third month in a row U.S. foreclosure activity registered at more than 50 percent above the level it was at a year ago, according to the March RealtyTrac U.S Foreclosure Market Report.

And for the second month in a row, the number of bank repossessions, or REOs, was up more than 100 percent year over year.

RealtyTrac said that 234,685 homes were hit with foreclosure filings last month, which include default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions. Of those, 51,393 homes were lost to foreclosure – a 10% increase over the number of homes lost in February.

On a year on year comparison, the number of homes repossessed by banks rose 129% and the number of foreclosed houses going up for auction increased by a comparatively low 32% over the 12 months from March 2007.

RealtyTrac says that could suggest that more troubled borrowers walking away from their homes and sending in the keys to the lender after defaulting.

Nevada remains the state with highest foreclosure rate in March, marking the 15th consecutive month that it has topped the list. One out of every 139 Nevada households received a foreclosure filing last month, which is nearly four times the national average, and an increase of 62% versus March 2007.

The foreclosure rate in California was the second highest in the nation (no wonder Washington Mutual, Wachovia and its Golden West subsidiary have needed $US14 billion in new capital in the past week), with one in every 204 homes receiving a foreclosure filing last month. Foreclosure filings were reported on 64,711 California properties in March, up 21% from the previous month and up almost 106% from March 2007.

Florida was third on the list, with one in every 282 households being hit with a foreclosure filing last month. That’s down from February, but up 112% from last year.

And the outlook for America’s homebuilders continues to worsen, despite the prices of listed builders rising by up to 20% in the past two months.

The National Association of Home Builders says its housing market index came in at 20 in April, the third-lowest reading on record.

The index is derived from a survey of about 400 residential developers nationwide: it gauges builders’ perceptions of current conditions, interest from potential buyers and expectations for home sales over the next six months. Index readings above 50 indicate positive sentiment.

The index has been at 20 or below since September, and below 50 since May 2006.

And, according to media reports, Fitch Ratings warned on Tuesday that the US housing sector is likely to continue to contract throughout 2008, and could worsen further in 2009 if the economy slides into a sharp recession.

The agency said low mortgage rates, cheaper home prices and government aid proposals, will not be enough to spark a turnaround.