C.J. Lamb from The Gunderson Law Firm talks about a real estate lawyer’s role in a home purchase

With all the steps you’re taking to find, investigate and close on your first home, a real estate lawyer might seem like overkill. However, some states actually require a real estate lawyer to be involved in certain portions of the transaction. But even where it’s not required, it can be helpful to have a lawyer on your side. The good news is that although it might seem expensive to hire a real estate law firm, the costs aren’t as high as you may think. We’ll dive into specific costs a little later but don’t worry – it is a relatively cheap expense, especially in comparison to the large purchase you’ll be making!

Let’s take a look at some reasons you’ll want to consider adding some expert legal help during the purchase process.

Reasons for hiring a real estate lawyer

Although one of our missions is to help you get educated on buying a home, there are some specific scenarios where only an expert will do. For example, let’s say you’re purchasing a home that’s been foreclosed on. Or perhaps where the seller inherited the house from a relative. Any time there are unique circumstances, there could be unique problems. And just like a title search is beneficial in finding those skeletons in the closet, a real estate lawyer will be helpful in making sure you avoid any pitfalls! This may take the form of contract amendments or clauses that will protect your best interests.

Your state my require a real estate lawyer

As we discussed above, you may be required to retain legal counsel. This can depend not only on your state but actually vary by region too! Once you start working with a team of professionals (real estate agent, mortgage broker, etc.), you’ll be able to determine exactly what you will need to close on your home. Keep in mind, however, that you need to ensure this lawyer will work for you. We’ll discuss later how to choose a real estate lawyer – but don’t just take the advice of your agent, for example, without taking the steps you need to ensure your own interests will be taken into consideration.

An extra set of eyes to review documents

There will be a lot of review occurring from the time you sign the contract to the time you close. During that time, there may be issues that require the help of an expert. Whether it’s a review to ensure clear title or to ensure you get your escrow back during a dispute, it is helpful to have someone fighting for your interests. If you wait until an issue comes up, you could be stuck trying to find someone during a short contractual window in which you need to be able to make a decision quickly. Instead, get connected with the right team members early and protect yourself from making any decisions in a panic that could hurt you down the road.

A real estate lawyer will bring peace of mind

At the closing, you’ll be signing a lot of documents. And by a lot, we mean a mountain the size of your old college textbooks. It can seem overwhelming, so you may not want to go into the room without a lawyer in your corner. Many times, it can take hours to read every paper and not understanding certain terms or jargon will make that worse. Instead, have your lawyer with you to be able to ask questions! Whether you want to understand the long list of debits and credits or simply the agreement terms. They’ll be there to ensure you are comfortable, understand what you are signing and can get the keys with a sense of excitement, not dread.

When to start working with a real estate lawyer

So, when exactly should you start working with a real estate lawyer? Sooner rather than later. Many states have standard contracts for purchasing a home. Your real estate agent will likely be familiar with these contracts and will complete the information for your purchase using these fill-in-the-blank forms. The good news is that these forms have been vetted already and are fairly simple to read and understand. The bad news is that you have limited flexibility to make adjustments specific to your situation. Additionally, if you do, you may be working to adjust language on your own and not be fully versed in what that could mean legally.

The earlier the better

For that reason alone, it’s best to get a lawyer on your side as early as possible. Allow them to help you with the contracts if certain exceptions are needed. These could be as simple as changing the escrow guidelines or as complicated as rewording major portions of the agreements.

During the review process

Once the contract is signed, you’ll be going into a review phase. During this time, your real estate lawyer can help you with unexpected surprises. For example, would you know what to do if it comes to light that the property was altered from its original design? Were those changes done legally? And if not, what implications will they have to you as the new homeowner?

Or let’s say all goes well and the seller suddenly stops responding. Do you feel comfortable that your real estate agent will be able to get your escrow money back if it goes missing too? It’s not to say that your team of experts may not be ready and able to handle what can arise during a purchase, but it never hurts to have someone looking out exclusively for you, especially in times of alarm.

How much does a real estate lawyer cost?

So, you’ve decided you need a real estate lawyer. The next question is, how much is this going to cost? The good news is that it won’t be significant, especially in comparison to the home itself. During your investigation phase, you’ll notice that some lawyers bill differently. Here are the two options we typically see:

Hourly billing

Billing rates can vary but typically range from $150 to $350 an hour. The good news is that for most situations, you won’t need many hours for the standard home purchase. Where this can get expensive is if you have very unique circumstances and/or need a lot of assistance or negotiating help. Be careful with an hourly rate because many lawyers keep track of even those small-time increments (like when you called with a quick question), which means your bill can add up quickly!

Fixed billing

A good alternative to hourly billing is choosing a fixed cost option. With fixed billing, your lawyer will offer you the assistance you need for a price you can agree to before you get started. These costs can vary as well, based on the state as well as the firm. On average, you’ll see a fixed cost between $500 and $1,000. One thing to note here is that you take time to make sure you know what you’re getting for your payment. If you need help rewriting the contract but your agreement only covers the lawyer being available for closing, you could quickly see this option become the more expensive of the two. Ask any questions before you sign up.

How to find a great real estate lawyer

As mentioned earlier, you’re going to have a great team around you when buying a home, all of which probably have a real estate lawyer (or multiple) that they recommend.

Ask for referrals

A real estate agent and mortgage broker are both helpful resources to ask for referrals. You can also talk to friends or coworkers who recently went through a home buying process and ask for their contact, if they used a real estate lawyer. Getting a warm referral is always better than finding a number from a billboard so we recommend starting here.

Look at online reviews

As with most things in life, you can find pretty much everything you need on Google. Look for a local real estate lawyer or firm online and start reading reviews. Anyone can have a great, professional looking website but seeing what others have said about them matters more. You can search for online reviews in a lot of places, from the Better Business Bureau to Facebook. Once you’ve identified one or two possibilities, enter their name with the keyword “reviews” and see what comes up. Taking the time here could save you a headache later on.

Do your research

No matter where you get a name from, it’s up to you to review the lawyer’s reputation and qualifications. Along with reviews, call the office and ask to speak to the lawyer you’re considering. Ask questions like how long they’ve been practicing, how often they work with first-time homebuyers, would there be other lawyers from the firm working on your case, etc. Know exactly what your expectations are and what they can deliver before agreeing to work with any lawyer. It’s important you feel comfortable with whoever you hire, and that you will be able to work well with them during the process.

Specifically, look for real estate law firms

This may seem obvious but it can be something that gets missed pretty easily. Let’s say you ask your coworker for a referral and you’re given a name and solid feedback that the lawyer was great to work with. You call them up and ask a few questions about their process and their ability to help you purchase a home. They give you good answers and you sign up on the spot. It all goes well until a complicated issue arises, requiring a solid understanding of real estate law. When you pressure your lawyer who suddenly seems to be taking a while to return your calls, you are informed that he’s a divorce attorney and doesn’t really know these things off the top of his head. Turns out he helped your coworker – but only with a house sale as it related to his divorce! If you’re going to hire a lawyer, make sure they work for a firm that will be able to help you with your real estate purchase, no matter what comes up.

As you go into the home buying process, remember that even when a real estate lawyer isn’t required, they may be in your best interest!

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