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Living off campus; Many college students forsake dorms for their first taste of apartment life. ?Here are some points to consider before you put your name on a lease.

After two or three years living in the dorms, some college students want the chance to gain independence, and learn responsibility by moving into off-campus housing.

It's a big step, and many of ?these students haven't looked for an apartment before.

"A lot of them aren't schooled in matters of real estate," said Daniel J. Ryan, director of off-campus student services for the University at Buffalo.

Students need to keep a few key ?things in mind, and know which ?questions to ask, to make sure they ?move into a safe, well-maintained and affordable apartment.

There are resources available at UB and other colleges, not-for-profit groups, government agencies and online to help guide these prospective renters to the ?best housing.

"These are young adults. We're trying to teach them to be adults and ask these questions before they sign the lease and they're bound by its terms," said Lorenzo Guzman, general services manager for Sub-Board One, which is funded by UB student government.

Some colleges require first- and second-year students to live on campus, unless they are living at home, but by junior year, most undergraduate students have the ability to live off campus.

The dorms offer structure, proximity to classrooms and friends, and an assurance that utilities, meals and just about every other need are taken care of by the school. But living off campus offers the opportunity to do what you want, when you want. It can be cheaper and it's a test run for some of the responsibilities of adulthood.

For starters, make sure you understand what you're getting into, both in terms of responsibility and costs.

Sketch out a rough budget. Sit down and calculate the cost of living in a dorm, including meals. Then figure out what your apartment ?costs would be when all of the other associated costs are included. What will you spend each week on food? How much are the utilities if they're not included in the rent? How will you furnish the apartment and how much will those items cost? Once you've got a handle on those costs, you'll have an idea of how much you can afford to pay in rent and still stick to your budget.

In this region, pockets of college students live in University Heights, Elmwood Village, the Sweet Home community of Amherst – all areas near college campuses.

"Buffalo is kind of a college town. We have a lot of colleges in Buffalo," said Lou Petrucci, assistant director of the city's Office of Permit Inspection Services.

The search for the right apartment usually begins online, at Craigslist, Apartment Finder and other sites.
That's where Kyle Abron and his friends started their search for off-campus housing last year.

Abron, who graduated in May from Buffalo State College, moved off campus with his then-girlfriend and two other friends last fall. He wanted to see if he could handle the responsibility of living off campus, away from the distractions of other dorm residents and the constant presence of resident advisers.

The friends moved into a three-bedroom unit in a side-by-side double on Rees Street, just behind Buffalo State. "Location was the big key," Abron said. "Even if I lived off campus, I was basically on."

Experts encourage students to take a close look at any apartment before moving in to the unit, particularly if it's an apartment in an older house.

The University Heights, the neighborhood surrounding UB's South Campus, is home to an estimated 2,500 of the school's students, and the housing stock there is older.

First, check out the condition of the electrical outlets and wiring, because out-of-date or overloaded electrical systems can lead to fire, Petrucci said.

Those houses were built when people didn't own a lot of gadgets that run on electricity, a far cry from the flat-screen TVs, video-game players, computers and other devices owned by today's college student.

Does the home have fuse boxes or circuit breakers? If it's a home with breakers and more than one apartment, does each apartment have its own breakers? And are there three-prong outlets or only two-prong outlets?

Other things to look for, Ryan said, include: Does the apartment have working smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors? Are there ?loose steps or handrails that need ?to be fixed?

Would-be renters also need to make sure the attic and basement aren't being used as bedrooms and that there's enough space for all roommates, Petrucci said. "You have to make sure you have a living room, dining room and kitchen," he said.

If there's a problem, make sure anything the landlord promises to take care of is done before the tenant moves in, said DeAnna Eason, a coordinator in the Fair Housing Unit of Housing Opportunities Made Equal. Students should ask when the apartment was most recently examined by a town or city building inspector and should ask to see the certificate of occupancy produced after the inspection.

"I encourage students to ask the landlord for a copy of a certificate of occupancy that's less than 2 years old," Ryan said.

Students should have a contract with their landlord, and they should have a lawyer look at the document or, at the least, read it carefully and go over the language with the landlord.

Make sure everything is in writing, including the length of the lease – is it 12 months, nine months or month-to-month? Ask if utilities are factored into the rent and find out who is responsible for shoveling snow and mowing the lawn, said HOME attorney Jennifer Metzger Kimura.

Students need to know when the rent is due, and whether there is a grace period for that deadline, whether pets are allowed and who to contact for repairs if the landlord is out of town, experts said.

Kimura also advised taking photographs of every room before moving in and after moving out.
UB recommends checking out a landlord's reputation at the Apartment Ratings website, but only 35 apartments are rated on the site.

Several officials who work ?with student renters suggested ?they get renter's insurance to pay ?for the replacement of damaged or stolen property.

Students also need to budget ?for the expense of utilities, cable ?and Internet and other services, ?if they aren't included in the rent, ?and they should find out what ?previous tenants typically paid for those services, said Jason Perri, assistant dean of student affairs at Medaille College.

Also, if the students are moving farther away from their college, they need to take into consideration the extra cost for gas, the longer commute and additional time ?spent looking for parking on campus, he said.

"They oftentimes haven't planned for that," Perri said.

Students often move into an apartment with a group of friends or classmates. Experts said it's important to hash out ahead of time everyone's responsibilities for rent and added costs, before disagreements bubble up after they've lived together for a while.

"That's actually the biggest problem with roommates, is their personalities may not mesh up," Guzman said. "We always recommend some form of written agreement so that everybody is responsible for their actions."

Also, given the transience of many students, roommates need to work out who's on the hook for the added cost if someone leaves the apartment before the lease is up.

If student renters run into any problems, they have a number of options available to them.

They can contact their college or university – UB's Sub-Board One even has an office that provides legal assistance – HOME or the local government in whichever community they reside.

For Abron, he and his friends ?at one point or another had to deal with a litter-box smell, a beehive ?and moldy, peeling grout in the bathroom. And, although he would encourage students to live on ?campus as long as they can, he said his off-campus foray was a good experience for him.

"You pretty much learn a lot ?about yourself after doing it," said Abron, a Rochester native now living back home and working for Weco Manufacturing in Ontario.

email: swatson@buffnews.com