Real estate transactions can be extremely complex and they can involve a large amount of money, so there are times that getting advice from a highly qualified real estate attorney can be in your best interests.
An experienced real estate agent will be aware of the laws that govern real estate transactions. However, there will most likely be gaps in their knowledge that a qualified real estate attorney can fill in.
Here are some guidelines on how to determine if you should consult a real estate attorney, plus steps to take to find the best real estate attorney near you.
What do real estate attorneys do and do you need one?
Laws that govern real estate and property issues span a number of topics, including buying, selling, renting, sub-leasing, remodeling, land use, and others. In addition, there are related financial considerations, such as rent cap laws, mortgages, foreclosures, evictions, and more.
Some states require the presence of a real estate attorney during real estate transactions. These include Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. However, even if you live in a state where a real estate attorney is not required, it may still be in your best interests to have one.
A quality real estate agent will tell you if a certain issue is out of their expertise and will recommend consulting an attorney. Examples of these types of situations can include:
- A situation where renters have to be evicted due to a change of ownership of a property
- A lease-to-own situation
- Issues around foreclosures
- Tax issues related to real estate purchases or sales
- A dispute between a buyer and a seller
- Situations with property damage
- Safety and environmental dangers related to a property
- Situations with covenants, liens, and easements
As you can imagine, any event where something might go wrong can be a compelling reason to acquire the services of a real estate attorney. While the barrier to hiring one may be attorney fees, like hiring a great CPA, <ADD INTERNAL LINK TO THE CPA ARTICLE> what you pay for in services could save you a lot of money and headaches in the long run.
How to Find the Best Real Estate Attorney
- Give yourself plenty of time to find the right attorney.
If you think you might need a real estate attorney, don’t wait until the last minute to find one. Hiring an attorney is as important as hiring a valuable employee. It takes time to research, do your due diligence, and interview them to find the best candidate for the job.
If you have an existing attorney with whom you’re comfortable, they may be your best option, as many general practice lawyers can handle real estate-related legal issues. And if there are areas where they don’t have experience, most likely they can refer you to a fellow attorney who does. The key is finding someone who is qualified, competent, and whom you trust. If you’re starting from scratch, give yourself plenty of time to research attorneys to find the best one for your needs.
- Get clear on your objectives and the risks you might face.
Real estate attorneys will have areas of expertise related to specific aspects of real estate law, such as tenant disputes, commercial properties, or environmental issues. So, it’s important that you’re clear on the specific issues you’ll be dealing with so you can find an attorney who has experience in those areas.
In addition, consider what you have at risk. Like insurance policies <ADD INTERNAL LINK TO THE INSURANCE AGENT ARTICLE> where you can be over-insured and paying too much for insurance, you can also over-pay an attorney who is overqualified for the project you need. Finding the best attorney is about matching your legal needs with their expertise and skill set.
In addition, location matters. You may have a great attorney who lives near you, but if the property in question is located somewhere else, finding a local attorney can be the best way to go. They’ll be more familiar with local zoning and other laws that are regionally specific.
- Ask for referrals from friends, family, and colleagues.
Referrals are always a great option when it comes to finding a trusted professional. Asking friends, family, and coworkers – especially those who’ve undergone a similar real estate transaction to yours – is an ideal way to find the right attorney for your needs.
Your real estate agent can also be a great source for referrals. However, be wary of a referral from a seller’s agent, as they may not be prioritizing your best interests in the transaction.
In addition to getting a referral, it’s a good idea to do your own research on attorneys, if only for comparisons, to make sure you’re making the best decision.
- Conduct online research and due diligence.
Today you can find a wealth of information on real estate attorneys online. In fact, if you don’t find information on a specific attorney online, it can be a red flag.
Places to find information on real estate attorneys online include:
- The state bar association. The benefit of researching attorneys on a state bar website is that you’ll be able to verify if the attorney’s license is active and whether there are any suspensions or other actions against them.
- Lawyer listings include Avvo, Martindale, and others. Many of these third-party lawyer directories include client and peer reviews, in addition to providing contact information and details on the lawyer’s specialties.
- The law firm’s website
- Google searches
- Social media profiles
- Independent review sites like Yelp
By conducting thorough online research, you’ll start to get a good sense of the attorney’s overall reputation and experience, so you can find the best person to work with.
- Look for degrees and certifications.
LinkedIn can be a useful source of information to determine where an attorney earned their law degree. And, as mentioned above, you can check the state bar website to check whether an attorney’s license is active.
In addition, some states enable attorneys to become certified in real estate law. Generally, a lawyer who seeks out additional certifications beyond their law degree and license requirements is demonstrating that they want to take their knowledge and expertise to the next level, which is always a good sign.
- Interview your top real estate attorney choices.
Once you’ve done your preliminary research and gotten one or two referrals, the next step is to interview your top choices. Most real estate attorneys will offer a complimentary consultation.
During your consultation, ask questions. Here are some suggestions:
- How long have you been practicing real estate law?
- How many real estate-related transactions or cases have you handled in the past year?
- What cases have you handled that are similar to mine?
- Will you be the only person in the firm I’ll be working with, or will others be working on my case?
- Would you provide a list of references?
- How do your fees work?
- Do you have any conflicts of interest if you take my case?
While you can’t expect to get free legal advice during a complimentary consultation, the best real estate attorneys will be happy to answer any questions you ask that will help you determine if they are the best fit for your needs.
- Understand all fees and how the real estate attorney will charge for their services.
It’s extremely important to understand how your attorney will charge you for their services before you hire them. Generally, real estate attorneys will charge an hourly rate. It’s important to know what that rate is and to keep in mind that that the meter will be running with every meeting, phone call you make, and any other time they spend on your case.
In some situations, attorneys will charge a flat rate for common services, such as handling real estate closings.
If you need to set a cap on the amount you can pay the attorney, be clear about that amount up front and get the agreement in writing before you hire them.
- Ask them to explain their process when working with their legal clients.
As mentioned above in questions to ask potential attorneys, it’s important to understand the process involved with how the lawyer will handle your case, as well as timing. It’s fair to ask if the lawyer will be involved in every step of your case or if they’ll be passing the work to a junior attorney. This can be ok, but you’ll still want to know who you’re actually hiring to help you. In addition, ask if and when they’ll be available for phone calls or by email if you have questions.
It’s important to carefully review the attorney’s engagement letter or retainer agreement so you are clear on expectations. Understand when your payment or payments are due, as well as what documentation you need to provide and when.
Finding the best real estate attorney is not unlike finding a great nanny for your kids or a skilled surgeon. In all cases, the more due diligence you do up front, the better the odds are that you’ll have the best outcome.