How the top 10 places RATE
By Reporter associates: Lynn Adkins, Lynn Haessly, Scott Hildula, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Elizabeth Roberts, Kathy Titchen and Ami Walsh

(MONEY Magazine) – No place is perfect, of course, as the table below shows. Here you'll find how each of our top 10 metro areas rates in nine broad categories, with 100 points representing the best possible score. The black squares show the best performance among the top 10 in each category. It's clear why Sioux Falls ranks No. 1: The area gets a perfect score in economy and makes strong showings in transportation (availability of mass transit and commuting time), housing and health. San Francisco (No. 6) is best for both arts and leisure, although it loses points for its high crime rate and lofty house prices. College towns -- Columbia, Austin, Gainesville, Provo/Orem and Madison -- dominate the top 10 again this year, because they do so well in a broad range of categories, including education, health and housing. No surprise: Sunny weather helps boost Honolulu and Gainesville.

1. SIOUX FALLS, S.D. Area population: 123,000 Unemployment rate: 2.6% Three-bedroom house: $86,000 Property tax: $1,800 Top state and local income tax: None Sales tax: 7% Annual robberies per 100,000 people: 27 Annual sunny days: 210 For more information: 605-336-1620

Sioux Falls is practically a mirror image of the rest of America. Every business day, while the nation as a whole loses an average of 1,500 corporate jobs, Sioux Falls creates six new ones. ''We could become a big city,'' muses Rob Oliver, president of the Sioux Falls branches of Norwest Banks. ''There's a legitimate fear of that.'' Not to worry yet. In Sioux Falls, residents still know one another by their first names. And major-league sports haven't arrived here, though folks often make the four-hour drive to Minneapolis to catch some action. Sioux Falls is actually a magnet in its own right. The local 180-store Empire Mall draws 11 million shoppers a year, many from northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. The city has also become a regional health-care center. Sioux Valley Hospital, in particular, has been cited for its admirably low mortality rates. Traditionally, meatpacker John Morrell has been the city's largest employer. Now Morrell and Citibank share the honors, each with about 2,800 workers. In the early '80s, Citibank moved its credit-card operations here partly because the state has no usury limits. Credit divisions of Sears and other banks soon followed. A dollar really stretches; living costs are 7% below the national average, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association. At Minerva's, a popular restaurant, chicken breast with pasta costs only $5.95. You would have trouble finding an authentic sushi bar though: Whites make up 96.8% of the population.

2.COLUMBIA, MO. Area population: 112,400 Unemployment rate: 3.1% Three-bedroom house: $98,000 Property tax: $1,060 Top state and local income tax: 6% Sales tax: 6.475% Robberies per 100,000 people: 69 Annual sunny days: 191 For more information: 314-874-1132

Columbians like to joke that their city has a higher recidivism rate than the state prison in Jefferson City. And it's true that people who lived here once, often as students at the University of Missouri (''Mizzou''), hanker to come back to the Ozark foothills, midway between Kansas City to the west and St. Louis to the east. Says Tom Smith, 33, who returned in 1985 from San Francisco to start a communications-software company, Datastorm Technologies (1991 sales: $17.5 million), with fellow Mizzou alum Bruce Barkelew: ''With our success, we could be anywhere. But life in Columbia is so pleasant.'' The resilient economy rests on three firm pillars: colleges (Mizzou, Stephens and Columbia), health-care facilities (more than a dozen hospitals and medical centers) and insurance company regional offices. Since 1985, Columbia has added more than 15,000 jobs. Although income taxes and sales levies are a mite high, the cost of living is about 10% below the U.S. metro median and house prices now run roughly 13% less than the national average. But life here is not just inexpensive. It's also clean and green. Columbians brag that their city was the first in the U.S. to pass a recycling deposit law, back in 1977. Like many university towns, the city tolerates a low-level drug trade. ''But we've kept the gangs out,'' says chief of police Ernest Barbee. For a city its size, the population of Columbia is surprisingly diverse. The 92 houses of worship range from the Beth Shalom synagogue to the Islamic Center mosque. Hickman, the city's largest public high school, currently has a 25% minority-student enrollment, of which 15% are black and 5% are Asian.

3.AUSTIN Area population: 781,600 Unemployment rate: 5.3% Three-bedroom house: $107,000 Property tax: $2,340 Top state and local income tax: None Sales tax: 8% Robberies per 100,000 people: 204 Annual sunny days: 231 For more information: 512-478-9383

The hilly state capital deep in the heart of Texas has made the MONEY top 10 for two years running (it was ranked No. 9 in 1991). That probably doesn't surprise the crowd flocking to easygoing Austin, which has added about 2% annually to the city's population since 1990. According to recently released U.S. Census Bureau figures, Austin was also the eighth fastest-growing metro area in the U.S. over the past decade. A full third of the 11,000 students who graduate from the University of Texas here each year stay put too, often happy to settle for jobs that are beneath their qualifications. The local joke is that your plumber probably has a Ph.D. ! A well-diversified economy, anchored by UT, routinely keeps Austin's unemployment rate low. The state employs 55,000 people here, or roughly 12% of Austin's work force, and Texas hasn't suffered the massive layoffs that so many other state governments have lately. High-tech rules too, especially with the headquarters of mail-order PC manufacturer Dell Computer (sales: $890 million for the year that ended in February 1992, up 62%), founded by the 27- year-old phenomenon Michael Dell. This summer, the company was adding 50 staffers a week to its 3,500-person work force. And Dell, IBM and Motorola, among local employers, are expected to hire some of the 1,000 civilians who will lose their jobs when the Bergstrom Air Force Base closes next September. Three big Austin draws: low house prices, low taxes and high stepping. You can buy a luxurious new 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home in western Travis County for less than $150,000; an equivalent home on either coast would go for $300,000. And so far, there is no state or local income tax. Meanwhile, Austin's music scene, with more than 100 live music clubs (from country to R& B), rivals offerings in much larger cities. The commute to work? Not a problem. Says Brenda Band, 35, a Dell human- resources manager who moved here from Chicago last year: ''I first thought it was a joke when I heard the radio announcer talking about a three-minute traffic jam.''

4. MINNEAPOLIS/ST.PAUL Area population: 2,464,100 Unemployment rate: 4.5% Three-bedroom house: $130,000 Property tax: $1,300 Top state and local income tax: 8.5% Sales tax: 6.5% Robberies per 100,000 people: 166 Annual sunny days: 200 For more information: 612-370-9132 (Minneapolis); 612-223-5000 (St. Paul)

It's hard to imagine a more livable big city than this. Make that cities: Minneapolis (pop. 368,400) and St. Paul (pop. 272,200). Separated by the Mississippi, the twins are hardly identical. St. Paul, the state capital and older of the two, features Victorian homes on Summit Avenue and gallery hopping on nearby Grand Avenue. Big brother Minneapolis has the glass office towers and Nicollet Mall, an eight-block downtown pedestrian strip featuring four department stores and, in mild weather, a Thursday farmers' market. While so many other large cities struggle with fiscal woes, stable Minneapolis has a triple-A bond rating. The metropolitan area maintains a ) solid employment base, anchored by 15 FORTUNE 500 industrial companies with local headquarters, including General Mills, Honeywell and 3M. Parents and children take education seriously here, as well as in the rest of the state. According to the Department of Education, Minnesota has the third highest public high school graduation rate in the U.S.: 89.75%. Few places in the nation offer a comparable array of arts and leisure activities. Minneapolis' major contemporary-art museum -- the Walker Art Center -- and the Guthrie Theater are national institutions. Four pro sports teams play here, and the University of Minnesota, one of 12 four-year colleges in the area, sometimes draws sellout crowds when its Gophers hockey team takes to the ice. Residents rarely complain about life here. They pooh-pooh the arctic winters (the temperature can hit -20 degrees F) and are even learning to live with last year's double-whammy state tax increases: The top income tax rate rose to 8.5% from 8%, and sales taxes crept up to 6.5% from 6%.

5.FARGO, N.D. Area population: 153,300 Unemployment rate: 3.9% Three-bedroom house: $84,500 Property tax: $1,400 Top state and local income tax: 12% Sales tax: 5% Robberies per 100,000 people: 12 Annual sunny days: 199 For more information: 701-237-5678

Even its most ardent boosters agree that North Dakota has an image problem. ''Newcomers expect to see nothing but frozen tundra,'' says Kris Hovland- Sheridan, a local real estate agent. What they find instead in Fargo, on the state's eastern fringe, are a busy downtown, even busier malls and an awesome arch of sky overhead. Fargo (pop. 74,000) and neighboring Moorhead, Minn. (pop. 32,000), which is part of the same metro area, form a booming regional center for health care and financial services. Thanks to some of the world's richest soil, however, companies like Roman Meal Milling and Federal Beef Processing make agribusiness the area's mainstay. A nascent economic upsurge -- in 1991, housing permits shot up 39% -- lifted Fargo into our top 10 this year. College students are as ubiquitous as the wheatfields: 23,000 undergrads attend five local schools, including North Dakota State University. One special attraction for urban transplants: personal safety. Fargo has the fourth lowest violent- crime rate of the areas we analyzed. Most artistic and cultural activities are home-grown or do-it-yourself, though the new $48 million Fargodome will host touring concerts when it opens in January. Oh, yes, that Fargo winter, when about 35 inches of snow stack up and the mercury can dip to -30 degrees F. ''The north wind can make things chilly, so people like to take their vacations then,'' says Hovland-Sheridan. ''But the rest of the year, there's no reason to leave.''