A real estate attorney is, by definition, one who focuses on real estate transactions. Some specialize in particular types of real estate, such as commercial leases, investment property, residential rentals, or single-family home transactions. If you’ll be working with a real estate attorney, make sure you find one who specializes in helping buyers with their residential real estate transactions: drawing up or approving contracts, researching title, reviewing homeowners' association rules, assisting with the closing, and so on.
Do You Need to Hire a Real Estate Attorney When You Buy a House?
In several states, including New York, real estate attorneys are a regular part of the homebuying process, either by law or practice. Your real estate agent should be able to explain the role of attorneys in your state. You can also check with your state bar association; find yours on the American Bar Association’s website. Your state real estate commission or department may also be useful; find yours on your state’s home page available at USA.gov.
Even in states where it isn’t a legal requirement (or practice) to hire an attorney when you buy a house, a complex transaction may need an attorney’s assistance. If you don’t use an attorney and the transaction later goes awry, you’ll still have to hire one, at much greater time and cost. Better to work with a lawyer to structure a deal, not salvage it.
How Attorneys Can Help Homebuyers
Depending on your needs and where you’re buying a house, your attorney may become involved in one or more of the following homebuying tasks:
- negotiating, creating, or reviewing the sales contract
- overseeing the homebuying process to check for compliance with all terms and conditions of the contract
- performing a title search or reviewing the title abstract or title insurance commitment (to determine whether there are any liens or encumbrances on the property)
- explaining the effect of any easements or use restrictions
- negotiating or representing you in a contract dispute with the seller, and representing you at the closing.
An attorney can be especially important in complex housebuying transactions, such as the following:
- Legal claims have been made against your prospective house that must be satisfied by the time the property is sold.
- You plan to rent out the cottage behind the house you're buying and want to make sure this complies with local and state rules.
- You hope to add a second story addition and need to make sure that won’t be a problem under local zoning ordinances.
- Problems show up with the title: for example, the driveway is shared by the house you want to buy and the neighboring house, but that isn’t reflected in the title.
- You’re buying a condo or home in a planned unit development and need help reviewing documents like CC&Rs.
- You’re buying a co-op and want an attorney to review a co-op proprietary lease.
- You’re purchasing a new house, and want an attorney’s review of the new home contract drafted by the developer.
- You need to structure a private loan from a relative or friend to make the purchase.
- You purchase the house jointly with others and need to structure a cobuyer agreement and document how title will be held.
- The house you’re buying is a FSBO (“for sale by owner”).
- You’re buying a house that is in probate, foreclosure, or a short sale.
- You want to get out of the deal, and need a legal reason to break the contract (perhaps after you've removed contingencies, you found something wrong with the house).
- The seller is trying to get out of the deal, and you suspect they simply got a better offer.
And, of course, problems can come up after the sale that require an attorney’s help—for example, the basement floods during the first rainstorm and the seller’s disclosures never noted this problem. In this case, you may want an attorney to help you get the seller to compensate you for the water damage and the cost of a new sump pump.
Hiring a Real Estate Attorney for Your Home Purchase
To find potential attorneys, get recommendations from friends, coworkers, and trusted real estate professionals. You can also check out the real estate attorneys in Nolo’s Lawyer Directory. If you plan to work with an attorney, be sure to use your own—the seller’s attorney can not be expected to look after your legal interests.
Interview a few of the best prospects, asking about the attorney’s experience helping residential homebuyers, but also how much time the attorney spends on transactions similar to yours—especially if you’re buying a condo, co-op, or newly built house.
Be sure to ask about the attorney’s hourly rates or fees for services; expect to pay $150-350 per hour depending upon the services you need, and be sure to have a clear fee agreement.
If possible, get and check references for any attorney you plan to hire, especially if a substantial amount of legal work (and money) is involved. While some attorneys will be reluctant to provide names of clients (because of client confidentiality), it doesn’t hurt to ask. When you talk with references, check whether these people were satisfied with the attorney and how it was working with them.
Other Professionals Every Homebuyer Needs
Homebuyers typically need a team of experts to help with their home purchase, including real estate agents (see the Nolo article Choosing Your Real Estate Agent), mortgage brokers (see the Nolo article How to Choose and Work With a Mortgage Broker, and home inspectors (see the Nolo article Getting a Home Inspection).
For more on finding and choosing your real estate team and a step-by-step guide to the homebuying process, see Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart.