Home sales statewide fell almost 11 percent last year, according to data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Association of Realtors.

But some parts of the state fared markedly better. In the northwest, which includes the several counties in the extreme northwest corner of the state, sales rose almost 5 percent in 2010. In two contiguous southwest regions that include nearly a dozen counties, sales rose 2.6 percent. And in the southeast corner of the state sales rose 5.8 percent.

That compares with a 17.6 percent decline in the Twin Cities metro area.

The report provides a glimpse of housing markets in nearly a dozen regions throughout the state, and the results are intriguing. In about half of those regions home sales were flat, or rose. And even in those where sales declined, they declined far less than in the 13-county metro area.

"I was pleasantly surprised," said Chris Galler, chief operating officer for the Minnesota Association of Realtors (MAR).

While the data are a boost for parts of the state largely passed over by the housing boom, the regions that are represented by the data are large and contain many smaller markets that haven't fared well.

Given the size and diversity of those communities, there's no way to generalize about why those markets have done well, while others haven't, but there are several theories. Galler said that most communities in outstate Minnesota were largely passed over by the housing boom, eliminating the extreme highs and lows experienced in the Twin Cities metro area.

Unemployment, foreclosure and mortgage default rates are much lower in some small towns than in big cities where there are large waves of buying and selling. And in many rural communities there are fewer first-time buyers, which means that the market during 2009 and early 2010 didn't get the short-term boost from the home buyer's tax credit, which expired at the end of April.

In the extreme northwest corner of the state, for example, where the population has remained stable or fallen in many communities, home sales activity from 2009 to 2010 remained flat at just over 600 sales, according to Valerie Bruns of the Bemidji Board of Realtors.

Farther south, Nancy Houlahan of the West Central Association of Realtors in Willmar said that her 16-county service area in the extreme southwest corner of the state has largely escaped the highs and lows of the bigger metro areas.

That could change as default rates rise. Houlahan said that in just the past six months she's seen an increase in foreclosure sales. "That has had some impact on the price of houses here, but as a whole I would say the housing market has really held its own."

Galler said that, in the short term, smaller regions such as Fargo-Moorhead are a better bet for home buyers because they tend to escape the broader economic highs and lows that the Twin Cities metro area has experienced. But over time, you're likely to see more appreciation in bigger cities because they're likely to experience much bigger population gains.

"Would I rather own a home in Marshall than in the metro area? Probably not." Galler said. "But would it have been better over the short term? Yes."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376