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Living in the City

Getting the best out of your off-campus apartment

Shiney James, director of BU’s Office of Orientation and Off-Campus Services, says students should be prepared before moving into their new apartment by checking appliances and smoke detectors. Photo by Daryl DeLuca

For some students, a brownstone on Bay State Road or a suite in the Student Village is what life at Boston University is all about — proximity to campus and a view of the Charles River are hard to beat. But for others, there’s nothing like living in the heart of Allston or Brighton, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and the artsy vibe that spawned the neighborhood’s nickname of “Allston Rock City.”

Students living in off-campus apartments, however, have a few more concerns and responsibilities on their plate at this time of year. While all rental apartments should comply with state and local safety regulations, it’s a good idea to do some research of your own right away.

Shiney James, director of BU’s Office of Orientation and Off-Campus Services, says the first thing students should do is to assess the condition of their apartment. “They should make sure that all appliances are in good working order, especially the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors,” she says. “Students should also report their assessment of the condition of the apartment to the landlord.”

“It can be hard to find a place in really good condition,” says Carolyn Barnes (COM’06), who lived in Allston for two years while she was a student at BU. “Make sure to check the water pressure in the shower and ask about things like bedbugs!”

James’ office, along with the group Students Off Campus, have put together a Web site of resources, including links to the state’s list of tenant rights and responsibilities and the inspection departments for Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge. The Office of the Dean of Students has compiled a list of 20 questions to ask your landlord. BU Today has a few more tips for living in — and loving — your off-campus apartment.

Check the detectors
Your new pad should have both a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide detector — required in all Massachusetts residences since 2005. “It’s the last thing you think about,” says Barnes, “but a carbon monoxide detector saved lives in one building I lived in.” Make sure that you have both, that you know which is which, and that both work. Ask your landlord when they were last tested and replaced, and, Barnes advises, if things aren’t up to code — and your landlord isn’t responding quickly — buy your own.

Take photos
Photos of your apartment taken in the early days of your tenancy — ideally, even before you move in — can make a big difference when it comes time to settle up at the end of your lease. If that wall was water-stained when you got here, make sure your landlord knows about it as soon as possible so you don’t lose any of your security deposit for the repair of damages that aren’t your fault.

Keep your receipts
You probably wrote some pretty big checks when you signed your lease — first month, last month, and security, at least. Your landlord is supposed to give you a receipt within 30 days and keep your security deposit and last month’s rent in an interest-bearing account, to be paid out when you vacate the apartment. But it’s a smart move to maintain your own records of the dates and amounts paid, ideally keeping a copy of the checks.

Read up on the rules
Did you know that it’s illegal to keep a barbecue grill on a wooden porch in Brookline? It may sound like a nitpicky rule, but unfortunately, Boston University students learned a sad lesson about safety last March, when a young man visiting friends at a St. Mary’s Street apartment died in an early-morning fire. Brookline fire officials suspect the blaze was sparked by embers from a charcoal grill left unattended on the apartment’s back porch. Since then, BU has created a Web site with tips and information about keeping yourself safe, on and off campus. For example, your apartment should have two accessible exits and at least one fire extinguisher. Take some time to read up on the other recommendations — you never know when you’ll need them.

Find out about your rights

Every now and then, you may find yourself in a difficult situation — a roommate who doesn’t pay his or her share or a landlord who doesn’t respond promptly to repair requests. What to do? Before you think about calling a lawyer, call the housing authority in your city or town for advice. Local officials can explain your rights as a tenant and advise you on the best course of action. You can reach the Cambridge Housing Authority at 617-864-3020, and the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation at 617-787-3874.

Get to know your neighborhood

Every Boston neighborhood has its secrets and quirks. Allston’s got a lot going for it, from cheap cuisine and lots of entertainment to a cast of local characters that gives it a city feel. But one of its disadvantages? “It’s common knowledge that most tenants are away during school breaks,” says Barnes, which makes certain houses targets for a break-in. Be sure to take your valuables home or put them in a secure place when you’re away.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.