Phoenix. Miami. Detroit.
Just a short while ago, many experts thought the twin scourges of overbuilding and massive foreclosure rates would cast a dark shadow over those markets for years to come.
Now these cities, once written off as terminal patients of the nation's ailing real estate market, are seeing some of the greenest shoots of recovery this spring.
To be sure, the national housing market continues to improve slowly and steadily—serious mortgage delinquencies are falling and foreclosure rates are tapering off—but at the local level, many markets are outdoing national trends.
"While the national market continues to improve, it masks regional variation where some local markets are improving much more rapidly than others," Mark Fleming, CoreLogic's chief economist, wrote in a report Wednesday.
Looking at the rankings, calculated using list price appreciation and sales inventory data, the most improved metro areas were many of the same cities hit hard by the housing and foreclosure crises—Phoenix and most Florida markets—or, as in Boise City's case, experienced relatively mild housing and economic recessions.
Phoenix, which advanced one spot from its ranking in the previous quarter, benefited from a healthy increase in median home prices and a decline in distressed housing inventory.
"If inventory remains in check, it's only a matter of time before Phoenix fully stabilizes and has lasting home value appreciation," the Realtor.com report noted.
A hot-spot for international buyers, Miami continues to benefit from the influx of cash transactions, which made up almost two-thirds of all sales in March. A slew of other Florida markets, including popular tourist destinations such as Orlando and Tampa, saw broad improvements as well.
"We continue to see signs of stabilization and recovery on the local level throughout the country," said Steve Berkowitz, CEO of Realtor.com, in a statement. "By all indications, the 2012 housing market is unfolding as we expected and we're encouraged with the progress local markets are making."
But despite a growing number of improving local markets, plenty of obstacles lie ahead for the housing market.
According to CoreLogic, one of the most reliable predictors of the speed and strength of a particular metro area's recovery is whether or not the courts have to supervise foreclosure proceedings (judicial states). Foreclosures take a lot longer to complete in judicial states and metro areas within judicial states tend to have higher concentrations of foreclosure inventories.
Take for instance New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, all states that have a judicial foreclosure process and all states with cities no where to be found on Realtor.com's rankings. Foreclosures in New York take about 1,056 days to complete, while the process takes 966 days in New Jersey and 592 days in Connecticut, according to foreclosure information website RealtyTrac.
On the contrary, Arizona and Idaho—states with well-performing cities according to Realtor.com—are all non-judicial states, meaning foreclosure proceedings aren't mediated by the courts, and foreclosure timelines in those states are much shorter. In Arizona, foreclosures take about 182 days on average, while those in Idaho take 315 days on average.
"The faster the foreclosure inventory can be resolved, the more quickly housing markets regain their health," Fleming added.
But it's not just how fast foreclosures are resolved that will ultimately determine the housing market recovery. Perhaps the biggest determinant is the health of the broader economy and job market. The fate and future of the nation's foreclosure stock also remains a question mark, specifically how lenders plan to process and release their foreclosure inventories in the wake of the National Mortgage Settlement.
Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter.