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Say you’re ready to get a mortgage and buy a house. You know where you’d like to live and how much you can afford to spend. Maybe you’ve even hired a real estate agent. One question many potential homebuyers ask at this point is whether they should hire a real estate attorney.

The short answer? In some states, real estate attorneys are required to buy a house. In most states, they are not required. In any case, an attorney can be very helpful, especially if you encounter a complicated or unusual legal issue. Here’s what you need to know about real estate attorneys if you’re in the market for a house.

Real estate attorneys: an overview

Real estate attorneys are lawyers trained to address the legal issues surrounding property interactions. They may represent organizations or individuals. Among the documents real estate attorneys typically handle are purchase agreements, mortgage documents, title documents and transfer documents. In some cases, they help individual homebuyers close on houses.

Do I need a real estate attorney to buy a house?

Check with your real estate agent to see if your state is one of the handful that require real estate attorneys for all property transactions. If it is, the responsibility to find an attorney usually falls to the buyer. If your state doesn’t require an attorney, there is a good chance you can do without one. Real estate transactions have become fairly standardized, and you and your agent should be able to fill out the paperwork without too much trouble in most cases.

Sometimes, though, homebuyers face contractual issues that are best handled by legal professionals. If you and your agent are concerned about a specific legal issue, it’s best to seek out a real estate attorney. For example, there may be a tenant on part of the property, or you may want to rent the property out for a certain period of time. Or maybe a tax lien has been imposed on the property and you’re unsure of its implications. The bottom line? In the face of complex language or atypical situations, real estate attorneys can provide invaluable help.

How do I find a real estate attorney?

There are many online databases of real estate attorneys, and it’s easy to narrow the search to your area. When you meet with a real estate attorney or talk with him or her on the phone, be sure to ask the following questions:

  • How long have you been practicing? Especially if your problem is complicated or arcane, you’ll want an attorney with several years of experience.
  • How many cases like mine have you handled? If the attorney has dealt with cases like yours in the past, you can be confident he or she will address yours successfully.
  • How would you handle my case? A good attorney will be able to give you a detailed plan of action.
  • How will you bill me? Find out the rate up front so you’re not unpleasantly surprised when the bill arrives. Standard rates range from $150 to $350 per hour.
  • Who else will be working on my case? Make sure you feel at ease with everyone who plans to be working for you.

You’ve hired an attorney—now what?

Once you’ve hired a real estate attorney, your attorney may return to you with questions about certain decisions, but if all goes well the home buying process will proceed without complication. Your attorney will make sure the transaction is legal, binding and in your best interest, and you can rest assured that you’ve covered all your bases as you prepare to move into your new home.