real estate

5 questions to ask a real estate attorney

Highlights
  • Find out how long the real estate attorney has been practicing in your state.
  • Ask if your lawyer has dealt with home transactions similar to yours.
  • Knowing the attorney's fees can help to avoid unpleasant surprises.

When questions arise on a real estate transaction, most people call their agent or broker. But if the deal is complicated or risky, it's smart to consult with a real estate attorney.

For typical transactions, such as the uneventful sale of a single-family home, lawyers are an unnecessary expense, says Paul Quinn, a real estate attorney with GrayRobinson in Orlando, Fla. But residential investors, people buying homes in a short sale and homeowners facing foreclosure can benefit from the advice of a real estate lawyer.

"Most real estate agents are not licensed to practice law, and they don't have the training to review surveys or alert buyers to issues that could be costly to fix down the road," Quinn says.

However, just because an attorney says he practices real estate law doesn't mean he's qualified to handle your case. When choosing an attorney, ask these questions to make sure you've got the perfect legal match.

1. How long have you been practicing? Before you hire an attorney, it is helpful to determine how much real-life legal experience he or she has, says Aaron Hall, a Minneapolis-based attorney with Twin Cities Law Firm LLC.

"If you're asking for help with something simple like a purchase agreement, maybe you wouldn't mind having someone with one to three years of experience," Hall says. "But if you're dealing with a real estate development or something complex, you probably want somebody with eight to 15 years."

Quinn says you also should ask if the attorney graduated from an accredited law school. And if the school is out of state, find out how much of the lawyer's experience is in your state. A list of American Bar Association-approved law schools can be found at the ABA's Web site.

However, it's not always necessary to find a seasoned pro with decades of legal work behind him. In fact, going with a less experienced attorney can save you money because he would likely charge less than a senior partner, Quinn says.

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2. How many cases like mine have you handled? Not all real estate matters are created equal. Ask if the attorney has dealt with transactions similar to yours. If he has, he will be better able to foresee potential problems and head them off, says Tim McFarlin, a real estate attorney with McFarlin & Geurts LLP in Irvine, Calif.

Carolyn Carter, deputy director of advocacy for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says most attorneys won't reveal clients' names without the clients' consent. To get a personal referral on an attorney, Carter suggests you contact attorneys you trust in other fields and ask them who would be appropriate for a real estate transaction or ask a friend or neighbor who's had successful legal work done on a real estate matter.

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