Veteran real estate agent Cari Linn says it's easy to spot clients on their first trip to the Twin Cities — they mangle the pronunciation of city names and marvel that the area outside the two downtowns isn't filled with farmland.

But those who have done a little homework often mention a community they saw on Money Magazine's Best Places to Live list, such as Eden Prairie or Chanhassen, and Linn believes being on the list gives a city an edge.

"I absolutely think it adds an advantage to a buyer's perception," she said.

First published in 1987, Money's annual ranking of top cities is probably the country's most widely read quality-of-life barometer, measuring housing, jobs, schools, safety, climate, leisure activities and a host of other criteria. Chanhassen, Apple Valley and Savage made the most recent list, which was published last month and focused on towns with 10,000 to 50,000 people.

"People love reading this kind of stuff," said John Adams, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota's Department of Geography, Environment and Society.

But while they may be entertaining, the studies can lead to overly black-and-white assumptions, Adams said. "They convey the impression that one place is Nirvana but that other place over there is the pits."

The precise methodology of Money's rankings aren't known but appear to vary from year to year, leading to abrupt changes in rankings.

Plymouth landed at No. 1 in 2008 and No. 11 in 2010, but it was absent from the list in 2012, the last time cities of its size were ranked. The community has had one of the Twin Cities' strongest housing markets, partly because the Wayzata School District, which serves most public school students in Plymouth, is so popular with parents that open enrollment has closed in many schools.

Arden Hills came in at No. 14 in 2011, when the city was still in the running for the new Vikings stadium. Money's brief description of the town referred to the Superfund site where cleanup was "nearly complete." The latest estimate by federal authorities is that the cleanup will be done by late 2014.

And Lino Lakes, listed 44th the last time smaller towns were ranked in 2011, was left out this year.

"We have the same amenities we did two years ago," said City Administrator Jeff Karlson. He doesn't consider being on or off a big deal, but admits that being left out "is a bit odd."

Money, which uses an outside data services company to help it with the study, declined interview requests.

Culture shift

Adams says interest in the rankings reflects a change in the Twin Cities' culture, which used to operate more independently from the outside world.

"As our local area has become more linked with what's going on nationally and internationally, we've become more self-conscious of how we stack up. We let others assess our worth instead of marching to the beat of our own drummer."

While the benefits of landing on Money's list are difficult to quantify, communities see it as valuable tool. "Every community is out there, waving their hand and saying 'Look at us,' " said Ron Case, a longtime Eden Prairie City Council member. A high ranking can help a community get noticed.

"It sure helps your arsenal," said Apple Valley Chamber of Commerce President Ed Kearney. He said the city's rankings in recent years drew the attention of the American Institute of Architects, which awarded it a grant — one of only five in the country — for a pro-bono planning study. Apple Valley is using some of the research to help it plan development around the new bus rapid transit line on Cedar Avenue.

Mike Devoe, president of Ryland Homes, said prospective buyers frequently mention Money's rankings when deciding where they want to live. "It also is something the folks in our sales centers also like to talk about. It definitely goes into our marketing message," he said. "It reinforces the idea that we're focused on the right places, attracted to them for the same reasons they wound up on the list."

The rankings may have less of an effect in the commercial market, according to Richard Grones of Edina-based Cambridge Commercial Realty. He said out-of-town retail clients sometimes ask about communities they have seen listed but that ultimately "there's a whole bunch of other market forces that drive commercial development harder."

Grones also said the amount of mileage communities get from being listed depends on how aggressively they promote it.

Winners typically display their rankings on their websites and Facebook pages. Chanhassen and Eden Prairie have put up street banners noting their rankings. At a Savage Chamber of Commerce meeting last week, City Administrator Barry Stock handed out window decals the city had produced noting its listing.

Stock said that when he learned of Savage's most recent rank, his wife warned him residents would ask him why the city wasn't No. 1.

That hasn't happened, but Stock said the ranking does create expectations. "People will say, 'We've just been identified as special. So where's the specialness? I'm not receiving it!' "