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Animal McMansion: Students Trade Dorm for Suburban Luxury

Heather Alarab, a junior at the University of California, Merced, and Jill Foster, a freshman, know that their sudden popularity has little to do with their sparkling personalities, intelligence or athletic prowess.

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“Hey, what are you doing?” throngs of friends perpetually text. “Hot tub today?”

While students at other colleges cram into shoebox-size dorm rooms, Ms. Alarab, a management major, and Ms. Foster, who is studying applied math, come home from midterms to chill out under the stars in a curvaceous swimming pool and an adjoining Jacuzzi behind the rapidly depreciating McMansion that they have rented for a song.

Here in Merced, a city in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley and one of the country’s hardest hit by home foreclosures, the downturn in the real estate market has presented an unusual housing opportunity for thousands of college students. Facing a shortage of dorm space, they are moving into hundreds of luxurious homes in overbuilt planned communities.

Forget the off-to-college checklist of yesteryear (bedside lamp, laundry bag, under-the-bed storage trays). This is “Animal House” 2011.

Double-height Great Room? Check.

Five bedrooms? Check.

Chandeliers? Check.

Then there are the three-car garages, wall-to-wall carpeting, whirlpool baths, granite kitchen countertops, walk-in closets and inviting gas fireplaces.

“I mean, I have it all!” said Patricia Dugan, a senior majoring in management, who was reading Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” in her light-filled living room while soaking a silk caftan in one of two master bathroom sinks.

The finances of subdivision life are compelling: the university estimates yearly on-campus room and board at $13,720 a year, compared with roughly $7,000 off-campus. Sprawl rats sharing a McMansion — with each getting a bedroom and often a private bath — pay $200 to $350 a month each, depending on the amenities.

Gurbir Dhillon, a senior majoring in molecular cell biology, pays $70 more than his four housemates each month for the privilege of having what they enviously call “the penthouse suite” — a princely boudoir with a whirlpool tub worthy of Caesars Palace and a huge walk-in closet, which Mr. Dhillon has filled with baseball caps and T-shirts.

The pool table in the young men’s Great Room is the site of raucous games and taco dinners. “You definitely appreciate it when you visit your friends at other schools and they say, ‘O.K., sleep on the floor,’ ” Mr. Dhillon said.

A confluence of factors led to the unlikely presence of students in subdivisions, where the collegiate promise of sleeping in on a Saturday morning may be rudely interrupted by neighborhood children selling Girl Scout cookies door to door.

This city of 79,000 is ranked third nationally in metropolitan-area home foreclosures, behind Las Vegas and Vallejo, Calif., said Daren Blomquist, a spokesman for RealtyTrac, a company based in Irvine, Calif., that tracks housing sales. The speculative fever that gripped the region and drew waves of outside investors to this predominantly agricultural area was fueled in part by the promise of the university itself, which opened in 2005 as the first new University of California campus in 40 years.

The crash crashed harder here. “Builders were coming into the area by the bulkload,” said Loren M. Gonella, who owns a real estate company here. “It was, ‘Holy moly, let’s get on this gravy train.’ ”

But visions of an instant Berkeley materializing in the cow pastures were premature. The stylishly designed university planned for a gradual expansion, adding 600 new students a year. That has meant phased dorm construction, which is financed with tax-exempt bonds repaid by student revenue. There is room for only 1,600 students in the campus dorms, but 5,200 are enrolled.

With hundreds of homes standing empty, many of them likely foreclosures, students willing to share houses have been “a blessing,” said Ellie Wooten, a former mayor of Merced and a real estate broker. Five students paying $200 a month each trump families who cannot afford more than $800 a month.

The university’s free transit system, Cat Tracks, stops at student-heavy subdivisions. There are also limitless creative possibilities, with décor ranging from a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority bedroom motif to an archetypal male nightstand overflowing with empty bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Not all neighbors are amused.

“Everybody on this street is underwater and can’t see any relief,” said John Angus, an out-of-work English teacher who paid $532,000 for a house that is now worth $221,000. “This was supposed to be an edge-of-town, Desperate Housewifey community,” he said. “These students are the reverse.”

Mr. Angus pays $3,000 a month, while student neighbors pay one-tenth of that. “I think they’re the luckiest students I’ve ever come across,” he said somewhat bitterly.

Nevertheless, students quickly learn that the cul-de-sac life is not risk-free. Lance Eber, the crime analyst for the Merced Police Department, said vacant houses were frequent targets of theft, most recently of copper wiring. They also attract squatters, who sometimes encamp beneath covered patios, he said.

Ms. Wooten related a cautionary tale about four students living in a house foreclosed by a bank who continued to send rent checks to an owner who had skipped town. When the bank gave them two weeks’ notice to move out, the students went into Erin Brockovich mode and researched their legal rights. “It bought them at least three months,” Ms. Wooten said. “By golly, they’re still there.”

She added, “There are some odd scenarios going on around here.”

They include the case of absentee landlord parents like Rhonda Castillo and her husband, who bought a house for their son, Jason, when times were flush in 2005. Jason was in the first class at the Merced campus.

The untimely investment was ultimately less important than “an investment in our son,” Mrs. Castillo said. “It gave him a preview of real life: buying groceries, preparing food, doing the laundry and taking care of the yard.” (He is now in medical school, and four female students rent the house.)

Indeed, managing a four- or five-bedroom house — not to mention all the cars — can be tricky business for young people.

Sitting in her kitchen, a planet of granite, Katilyn McIntire, a human biology major, explained how she and her four roommates rotated cars — one parks on the street, two park in the garage and two in the driveway. Whoever is getting up for an 8 a.m. class parks last. After an unsuccessful attempt at tending the yard with a hand mower, they now pay $50 a month to a gardener.

The student equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses” has emerged, too.

Jaron Brandon, a sophomore and a senator in the student government, does his homework in the Jacuzzi in his six-bedroom house, on a waterproof countertop that he rigged over the tub.

Seeking housemates, he posted a beguiling ad on Craigslist: “For a small amount more than a nameless house in the suburbs,” it read, “you could be living in a mansion right by school.”

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