I am also from NC. I went to undergrad at NC State. Columbia, in my opinion, was a pretty cool place. It has its good and bad areas, as any city does. The streets are lined with palm trees and the city has a very old south feel to it. It is a very historical city and campus, built in 1803. The law school itself is nothing to be extremely impressed with, in fact it is somewhat old. The library is nice (3-story and lots of reference). After visiting, I was definitely sold. I didn't have enough time to get enough information on apartment complexes in the area. I would like to try and find a roommate to cut down on expenses. I would definitely recommend visiting first. The Old South appeal isn't for everyone, but the campus--in my opinion--is amazing. As a law student, we do get all access to everything the undergraduates do (even sporting events). There aren't really any good parallels between Columbia and any NC cities. If I had to say something, I would say it has the feel of Wilmington with the job market somewhere between Raleigh and Charlotte.
Of course, these are just my opinions.
I agree that Columbia definitely has an Old South feel to it. Everyone I've met at the law school, on campus, and else where in Columbia was very friendly and welcoming. I also agree that the building is nothing special, but the programs the school offers seem to make up for it. I've looked around a little bit at apartments (the ones I've toured were pretty nice). I'm also looking for a roommate, but so far it seems like there are options no matter what type of living situation you're looking for. I am pretty certain I will be happy with my decision to spend the next three years there.