Ordinary real estate transactions — simply buying or selling a house — don’t always require the help of a real estate attorney. However, if thorny legal issues come up that can’t be handled by a real estate agent, such as illegal in-law units, tenants who must be evicted, or unusual lease agreements, you’ll need a real estate attorney to advise you and possible settle disagreements. Also, some mortgage documents are complicated enough to warrant pursual by an attorney. Depending on how much help you need, the attorney may charge either an hourly rate or a flat fee for a specific service.
It’s important to know whether your state is an attorney state or a title state. An attorney state, such as Massachusetts, requires the the involvement of a real estate attorney in the purchase, sale and closing of a house. In a title state, such as California, a real estate attorney is necessary only when there are legal disputes to settle.
Real estate attorneys are qualified to handle all legal matters related to real estate, including disputes and transactions. They write and review purchase agreements, title and transfer documents, and other important documents. They also make sure the property transfer is legal, binding and in the best interest of the client. A real estate attorney can help clients who need to back out of a contract.
Attorneys usually charge by the hour, from $150 to $350. However, some real estate attorneys may have a fee schedule for certain services, such as preparing real estate closing documents. For example, real estate attorney John I. O’Brien in Wakefield, Mass., charges the same closing fee regardless of the cost of the house. Also, he offers a package service for buyers who hire him for the purchase and sale as well as the closing.
Finding the right attorney
Ask your real estate agent to recommend an experienced, state-licensed real estate attorney, then do some online research. For example, if you’re buying or selling a home, make sure the attorney is knowledgeable in residential real estate and can represent either buyers or sellers in all real estate transactions, including lease disputes and declarations of homestead. Some attorneys, such O’Brien, are also licensed real estate brokers and can advise clients from the perspective of both roles.
As the client, you can set limits on the number of hours your attorney spends on your transaction. Write into your retainer agreement the number of hours you expect to work with the attorney, so you can avoid an open-ended number of billable hours. Many attorneys offer a free or discounted consultation before agreeing to a contract.