Don't Feel the Burn

Forget about location, location, location. A recent fire at an apartment complex in Houston highlights the importance of often overlooked safety features that should top any apartment hunter's checklist.

No one was injured in this incident, but it's worth noting that nearly 4,000 people were injured in more than 95,000 apartment fires in 2008, according to the National Fire Protection Association. So what should one look for when sizing up the safety of an apartment building or complex?

The NFPA's Robert Solomon, spokesman for the life safety division, says prospective renters should gather information much in the same way a person would when deciding whether to go on a date. "Keep your eyes open for things," like clean walkways and an appealing facade to indicate regular care and maintenance, he says. Walkways and hallways should be uncluttered, with doors, railings and staircases in good working condition.

But, just as in dating, looks don't tell the whole story.
For more, Solomon recommends the following:

1. Renters should take the time to research the building's record with a local municipal housing agency. Most cities will keep records of an apartment's inspection history. Steer clear of any building that has had numerous cooking fires, arson, or too many inspections in response to complaints.

2. Look for working smoke detectors in the common areas as well as in the units. If you don't see any, ask the super to show you. This is often your first defense against an out-of-control blaze.

3. Don't rely entirely on the management for your safety. Buying a a portable fire extinguisher for your home provides extra security.

4. Consider a building's overall layout. Many cities require buildings to have two exit stairwells, spaced in opposite areas of the building. Cities with older buildings, such as New York, may have only one exit stair, which you should take into consideration.

Firefighters called to the scene on January 14 said they had difficulty controlling and extinguishing the blaze because of the building's "maze-like" design. Officials say the fire started in a utility shaft in the building's attic, and was likely caused by a problem with the heating unit or electrical wires.
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