Look before you lease: Make safety a priority when selecting off-campus housing

February 16, 2017

Make safety a priority when selecting off-campus housing

Your college kid sounds very excited over the phone. She and her friends have found a great old apartment building with a three-room unit they can afford. Can she sign the lease?

"The apartments were built in 1911," your daughter says. "You should see the old ironing board that springs out from a kitchen cabinet! It's so cool."

She's right about one thing: You should go see the apartment. Not for the ironing board, but to check the building and her unit for safety.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), 94 percent of fatal college fires between 2000 and iStock-516041744.jpg2015 occurred in off-campus housing. In nearly 60 percent of fatal fires, there were no working smoke alarms. Electrical problems caused 11 percent of fatal fires, and 9 percent were caused by cooking.

So take a tour of your daughter's dream rental, whether it's an apartment or a house. If you can't check off all the items below, it could be a nightmare—and you might not want to sign the lease

  • A working smoke alarm should be outside every sleep area and in every bedroom on every floor.
  • Every room has two unblocked ways to get out. (A window counts as an exit.)
  • Any bedroom above the first floor has an escape ladder or stairway.
  • The apartment (or house) has two unblocked ways out.
  • The unit's electrical system can safely handle the power demands of computers, printers, TVs and other appliances. One thing to look for: multiple electrical outlets throughout, which help avoid electrical overload.
  • The stove is in good working order.
  • Smoking is not allowed in the building. An indoor ban may not be good enough, however,keep in mind that many off-campus smoking-related fires start in upholstered couches and chairs on outside porches and decks, according to the USFA. Look to see if neighbors have upholstered furniture sitting outside their home. That may be a cause for concern.

Additional sources: Campus Firewatch; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

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