College cribs

College cribs

If you're sending junior off to college, you know room and board is a big part of the expense.

Instead of writing a rent check (or paying a dorm fee), why not buy a place for your collegiate kid to crash? It's an investment that can pay off in future rental income.

We used the 2012-2013 College Destinations Index from the American Institute for Economic Research to find top college towns. Even if you don't have a student, these are good communities in which to invest.

From there, we searched for homes on the market that would make fine rental properties.

Square footage, number of bedrooms and unique amenities vary, but these homes all are located in areas where the major focus is the college, which means a solid student population.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, we made sure the typical mortgage won't exceed the area's average rent.

Prices range from $139,000 to $199,500, or a monthly payment of $578 to $830, assuming a 20% down payment and today's average mortgage interest rates.

Ames, Iowa

Address: 3223 West St.
Price: $182,500
Square feet: 2,178
Price per square foot: $84

Located less than one-half mile from the Iowa State University campus, this home built in 1917 is the best deal in our roundup in terms of price per square foot. And its four bedrooms and three bathrooms mean you can accommodate several renters at once. Wide oak floors, oak countertops and leaded glass windows give it a warm, cozy feel. The kitchen has standard appliances and a walk-in pantry. There's a finished attic. Don't miss the rustic backyard, with a stream that flows to a pond, mature trees and two seating areas. The typical mortgage for this home is $759; the average rent on a four-bedroom home is $1,246.

Ames, named the second-best college town by the American Institute for Economic Research, is home to the ISU Cyclones. Along with Big 12 athletics, the 35 woodland parks and 55 miles of bike and pedestrian trails are reasons this town is admired.

Steve Bock: Bock Real Estate Group; 515-231-1899

Burlington, Vermont

Address: 337 College St., Apartment 4
Price: $199,000
Square feet: 738
Price per square foot: $270

This condo is one of the most expensive homes on our list, but it packs in the style. Conveniently situated between the University of Vermont and downtown Burlington, this two-bedroom, one-bathroom home features a nicely appointed kitchen with new stainless-steel appliances and a butcher block counter top. The recently upgraded bathroom includes new tile, a vanity, a stylish sink and a shower. There's a washer and dryer located in the unit. You can finance this condo for around $828 per month; average rent on a two-bedroom home is $1,091.

Nestled along Lake Champlain's eastern shore, Burlington has been listed as one of the best college towns by several publications. Nightlife thrives on the waterfront. Outdoor activities are virtually limitless. And the Vermont State Fair and Champlain Valley Fair are in town every fall.

Nick Riina: Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty; 802-846-9559

Ithaca, New York

Address: 967 E. State St.
Price: $195,000
Square feet: 1,440
Price per square foot: $135

An Ivy League house doesn't necessarily mean an Ivy League price tag. Located a bit more than one-half mile from Cornell University, this three-bedroom, one-bathroom American Craftsman is one of the cheaper homes per square foot on our list. It features hardwood floors and wood accents throughout. The kitchen has been remodeled with wood cabinets, standard appliances and solid-surface counter tops. A formal dining room and a den round out the main level. And there's a private deck in the spacious backyard. You can expect your mortgage to be around $811 per month; average rent on a three-bedroom home is $1,486.

Ithaca took the top spot on the American Institute for Economic Research's ranking of the best college towns. University life is certainly the focus. But there are plenty of outdoor activities, including boating, swimming, hiking and cross-country skiing. Don't miss the gorges and waterfalls within 10 miles of downtown.

Barbara Blanchard: RE/MAX In Motion; 607-351-1273

Athens, Georgia

Address: 680 Pinecrest Drive
Price: $175,000
Square feet: 1,188
Price per square foot: $147

Situated in the woods on about half an acre, this cozy cottage features three bedrooms and two full bathrooms. It's less than a mile from the University of Georgia campus. The living room has an open design with wood floors. The dining room features a masonry fireplace and two large sliding glass doors that look out on the tiered deck. Standard appliances and counter tops come with the kitchen. The basement adds to the rentable space, with a bedroom, bathroom, living room, laundry room and exterior door. The typical mortgage payment will be around $728 per month; average rent on a three-bedroom home is $1,120.

It's hard to ignore football in Athens. The Bulldogs run wild in the SEC conference. But it's easy to see why U.S. News & World Report named Athens in its list of great college towns. Sitting below the Blue Ridge Mountains, Athens can brag about its antebellum architecture and eclectic nightlife.

Donna Fee: Keller Williams Realty; 706-316-2900

Bloomington, Indiana

Address: 134 N. Bryan Ave.
Price: $199,500
Square feet: 2,060
Price per square foot: $97

Located on the eastern edge of the Indiana University campus, this home wins for the easiest walk. It's also the second-least-expensive home per square foot in our roundup. There are four bedrooms, two full bathrooms and one-half bath. Wood floors run throughout the home. The kitchen has standard appliances and solid-surface counter tops. But the biggest selling point is the deck with built-in tables and benches. For parking, there's a garage and space in the alley behind the house. Expect to pay around $830 for the mortgage; average rent for a four-bedroom home is $1,412.

Home of the Hoosiers, Bloomington was No. 16 on the American Institute for Economic Research's list of best college towns. We think that's partially due to Big Ten sports, the town's vibrant nightlife and food.

Rod Figg: The Figg Real Estate Team; 812-322-8888

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Address: 604 Nunn St.
Price: $139,000
Square feet: 900
Price per square foot: $154

This small ranch-style home is less than a mile from the edge of the University of North Carolina, home of the Tar Heels. It's the least expensive on our list. The floor plan includes two bedrooms and one bathroom. You'll find an eat-in kitchen and carpeted floors in both the living room and the dining room. Being sold as-is, this might be a fixer-upper. But it's so close to campus, it might be worth the extra cost. The typical mortgage will cost you just $578 per month; average rent for a two-bedroom home is $894.

Chapel Hill is listed as No. 3 on Southern Living's list of "The South's Best College Towns." Attribute that to the Southern cuisine. Downtown is host to several culinary events. And there are great finds like The Pig, a barbecue joint the magazine says "don't miss." In addition to great food, public murals, colonial residences and cafes abound.

Bronwyn Merritt: Dwell Real Estate; 919-932-1058

Corvallis, Oregon

Address: 2512 NW Grant Ave.
Price: $167,500
Square feet: 740
Price per square foot: $226

It'll cost a bit more to live in the land of the Oregon State University Beavers. This is the third-priciest home per square foot in our lineup. Yet it's also one of the most charming. This cottage has two bedrooms and one bathroom. There's wood flooring throughout, with a fireplace in the living room. The kitchen has newer stainless-steel appliances and wood counter tops. The backyard is fenced and large. A typical mortgage will cost $697 per month; average rent for a two-bedroom home is $805.

American Institute for Economic Research listed Corvallis as the fifth-best college town. Corvallis also has been consistently ranked as one of the safest, smartest and greenest small cities in the nation. And it's a perfect place for the outdoorsy college kid. The Cascades and Pacific Coast are just an hour away.

Dava Behrens: Coldwell Banker Valley Brokers; 541-740-3844

Missoula, Montana

Address: 1008 Van Buren St.
Price: $149,000
Square feet: 608
Price per square foot: $245

Tucked away just a mile from the edge of the University of Montana campus, this home has one of the cheapest price tags on our list, but it's the second-most-expensive per square foot. Of course, it's located in the desirable Lower Rattlesnake historical district. It's a two-bedroom and one full bathroom home with several 2007 updates. In the kitchen, you'll find newer cabinets, a stainless-steel sink and newer solid-surface counter tops. It sits on a large fenced-in lot. The typical mortgage for this home is $620 per month. And the average rent for a two-bedroom home is $785 per month.

Outdoor activities are in abundance in Missoula. In fact, you can find 3.1 million acres of wilderness within a 100-mile radius of the university. The Rattlesnake Wilderness is just 5 minutes away. But if you're more of a snowbird, Snowbowl Ski Area is just seven miles from campus.

Julie Anton: Prudential MT Real Estate; 406-868-1839