Cindy Cole and Yves Sauvignon are getting married next weekend south of Sebastopol on land they purchased in December.

The 37-acre property, with two small residences, four horse barns and two equestrian arenas, was a foreclosure that had sold two years earlier for $2.6 million, Cole said. The couple bought it for $1.3 million, concluding it was too good a deal to pass up.

"We had the lust for land," Cole said, "and this property was like a siren. It kept calling to us."

The couple's purchase, and their sale of a neighboring property, represent a rare bright spot in Sonoma County real estate. At a time when The New York Times reports home sales at their lowest level in more than a decade, country properties are bucking the trend.

Sales of country homes jumped 42 percent in the county over the past 12 months. During the same period, sales of town properties declined 10 percent.

One reason for the divergent trends is that the number of available homes has been growing in the country market and shrinking in the town segment. But some agents suggest another possibility. Deals are being consummated in the country because many buyers are paying cash.

Cole, vice president of a Silicon Valley tech company, and Sauvignon, a professional equestrian trainer/coach, had an all-cash buyer when they sold Cole's three-acre property a short distance away from their new place. The price was $888,000. Two previous buyers who signed sales contracts also offered to pay cash, Cole said.

Country homes with two or more acres of land comprise a small slice of all residential properties in Sonoma County. They make up just 7 percent of all sales, according to Lisa Thomas of Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa, agent for Cole and Sauvignon.

But the variety of properties is striking, from rustic cabins in the redwoods to the 500-acre Tuscan style estate in Knights Valley owned by former San Francisco 49er Joe Montana. His estate, offered for sale last year at $49 million, remains on the market.

The category also includes a range of locales and microclimates: Wine Country, Russian River, hillside, flatland and coastal headlands.

Even in the aftermath of a historic economic downturn, the ultra rich are still willing to buy elite properties. Last week, former Citigroup chief executive Sanford Weill and wife Joan paid more than $30 million for a 362-acre estate near Sonoma. The sale appears to set a county record, though many such deals aren't recorded.

But agents say there is another side to country homes today. Properties with any potential problems -- excessive noise, lack of usable ground, failing septic systems -- can sit like wallflowers at the sock hop unless sellers are willing to aggressively slash prices.

Many buyers are telling agents, "I'm going to get a great property, and I'm going to buy it way under the market," said Craig Sikes, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.

Despite a jump in sales, the country market faces some of the same challenges as higher end properties within cities. The California Association of Realtors last week forecast that growing inventories and less attractive financing will cause "continued softness" in the price of higher end homes.

Agents and brokers who specialize in country property typically don't predict a big tumble. But many said uncertainty exists over property values, and it can lead to a big disconnect in the expectations of buyers and sellers.

The sellers "think it's 2006, and the buyers think it's 1930," said Mark Stevens, broker associate and manager of Artisan Sotheby's International Realty in Sebastopol.

Thomas last week produced a report showing prices for both town and country properties have dropped significantly during the past three years. The median sales price of properties under two acres -- mostly homes in town -- declined 36 percent to $330,000 for the quarter that ended Sept. 30. The median for properties above two acres was down 32 percent to nearly $778,000.

But year-over-year sales for country properties have increased for each of the last four quarters. In the past 12 months they totaled 349 sales, compared to 246 a year earlier. For town properties, 4,122 were sold in the past 12 months, compared to 4,604 a year earlier.

Over the past three years, the inventory of country homes jumped 18 percent, while town properties fell 25 percent. Experts say the decline in city homes appears tied to the decline in available foreclosures and other distressed properties.

In early 2009, nearly three of every four homes sold in town were distressed properties. Today the rate is about four of every 10. In contrast, about one in every four country sales involved distressed property during the third quarter.

Some see the possibility of price declines in certain parts of the country market.

Many of the buyers Cynthia Wood encounters think prices could fall significantly on homes in the $1.5 million to $3 million range, she said.

"Very few buyers are actually buying," said Wood, a broker associate with Sotheby's International Realty. "The wealthy in this price point are really looking for a screaming good deal."

That has caused a slowdown in sales, she said, as neither buyers nor sellers appear willing to budge.

Thomas predicts prices for country properties will hold up better than those of higher end homes in town. Even so, she said, country sellers often have to adjust their pricing expectations.

"What's fair in today's market is just different than what it was three years ago," she said.

When selling her old home, Cole said she took Thomas' advice about pricing and about getting it ready. She made the property shine like "the prettiest apple in the barrel."

Staff Writer Robert Digitale blogs about local real estate at realestate.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

He can be reached at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.