THE SCHOOL HOUSE

The Baltimore Sun

Paying for college or professional school isn't getting any easier.

According to collegeboard.com, most students and their families can expect to pay even more this year on tuition and fees and, on average, $371 to $406 additional for room and board a year, depending on the school.

Although parents and students can limit their overall costs by buying used books and applying for financial aid, there are ways to save on housing as well.

Renting an off-campus condo or apartment may seem like the most valid option when trying to save, but in the right situation, buying a house near campus -- even with the real estate market in a downturn -- is a viable alternative to shelling out thousands of dollars over the course of a few years without seeing any return.

"It's not unusual for parents to want to purchase a property for their sons or daughters while they are attending college or medical school," says Kevin Willner of Re/Max Sails in Canton. "Most parents' criteria is that the house must be within walking distance to the campus and that it must have two or more bedrooms that can be rented to other students."

Willner says that, generally, parents purchase houses in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, expecting a monthly mortgage payment of about $1,800 to $2,500. They also expect to draw rental income of about $400 to $500 a month for spare bedrooms leased to other students.

Many Baltimore-area colleges and professional schools are in close proximity to neighborhoods with affordable and attractive housing for students and parents looking to buy. Willner says that two popular areas are Charles Village near the Johns Hopkins University, and Ridgely's Delight near the University of Maryland schools of dentistry, law and medicine.

Sarah Hale, 27, a student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, began exploring different housing options at the end of her first year. Hale, with the help of her mother, Francie Christopher, was paying $1,000 a month for an apartment in a university-owned building that didn't feel like a place for truly serious students to live and study.

"It felt like a college dorm," says Hale, who is studying to be a family practice physician. "We had routine closet inspections and things of that nature. I didn't feel like an adult."

For Christopher, a professor at Northwest Missouri University, the idea of buying a house in Baltimore for her daughter was somewhat of a no-brainer in more ways than one. Christopher already owned a vacation home in Annapolis and was familiar with the area. "It just made sense financially," says Christopher, who purchased a $270,000 three-bedroom house for her daughter in Ridgely's Delight. "If you're going to pay a large sum of money for housing, you might as well have something to show for it after graduation."

Hale and two classmates who rent rooms in the house split the $1,800 mortgage payment three ways, saving about $400 a month each since they moved into the house in 2005.

In addition to saving money, Christopher wanted her daughter to be able to personalize her living space and really make the house her own. Unhappy with the original decor, Christopher and Hale painted the walls of the house and re-tiled the floor.

"Ultimately, it was all about making it as comfortable as possible," says Christopher.

But with the excitement of purchasing a new home, it's not unreasonable for a parent to feel a bit uneasy about leaving a college-age son or daughter as the primary caretaker of a house.

According to John Lowe, assistant vice president of student development for Frostburg State University, a house can deteriorate quickly if left in irresponsible hands.

"We had one parent purchase a home for their child and the child's friends," says Lowe. "After the students moved out, they might as well have bulldozed the house, considering the shape it was in."

That's why, according to Ellen McKinzie of Weichert Realtors, parents must use their own discretion when leaving a piece of real estate in the hands of a college student. McKinzie, who helped purchase a house in Mount Vernon for her nephew who was studying at the Peabody Institute, says to make absolutely certain that your child is willing to take on such a responsibility.

"You know your child better than anyone," says McKinzie. "You need to make sure your child is committed to staying at the same school until graduation and that they are able to act as the primary caretaker of the house."

For Hale, there were never any worries about making such a long-term commitment. She was comfortable with her role as head of the house and had been friends with her roommates since freshman year.

"We all worked for a short time after college and were comfortable with fending for ourselves," says Hale.

Buying a home for students in professional school is one thing, but parents should be careful about buying a house for a college student with less experience living on his or her own.

McKinzie says that it's best to purchase a house after your child has attended a school for an entire year and is comfortable with the school, the area and the students he is going to live with. And despite friendships among roommates, collecting rent should be treated in a businesslike manner. Composing a formal lease agreement between your child and their housemates is key.

"It's always necessary to create a binding document," says Mckinzie. "It's foolish to treat the living situation otherwise."

Even if all goes well while a child is in school, the issue of what to do with the house after graduation remains.

Willner says that when the student graduates, parents usually try to sell the house, hoping to either break even on the investment or make a small profit.

"Most parents don't want to be absentee or out-of-state landlords," he says. "Hopefully, when it's time to sell, it's a seller's or balanced market."

With Hale and her roommates graduating in May and moving to different cities, the fate of her house in Ridgely's Delight is uncertain.

If the house sells, Christopher says that there's a good chance she won't turn a profit. But she isn't opposed to renting to a group of students until the real estate market improves.

"I want to sell it, but if it doesn't sell and we have to rent it, I would prefer to rent to medical students." says Christopher. "I would be reluctant to rent it to undergrads. I'm a college professor, and I know what they're capable of."

brad.schleicher@baltsun.com

TIPS FOR PARENTS

Thinking of buying a house for your son or daughter while they attend college or professional school? Here are some things to keep in mind.

Be certain your child is committed to, and intends to graduate from, the school that he or she is currently attending.

Make sure your child is comfortable with the neighborhood and the surrounding community.

Look for a house within walking distance of the campus.

Make sure that your son or daughter knows the classmates that he or she plans to live with.

Compose a formal, legal lease agreement and have all tenants sign, regardless of your child's relationship with them.

If your child is attending college in another state, consider whether you are willing to act as an absentee landlord.

[Brad Schleicher]

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