Do You Need a Real Estate Attorney?

Understand what a real estate attorney does, when you need one and how to find the best fit for your needs.

U.S. News & World Report

Do You Need a Real Estate Attorney?

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A real estate attorney can help with everything from drawing up the initial documents to representing you in litigation regarding your property after you finalize the purchase.(Getty Images)

A real estate attorney is a licensed attorney who specializes in real estate transactions and disputes. A real estate lawyer will prepare or review documents leading up to closing day for a real estate deal on behalf of the buyer or seller.

Depending on your state or city, real estate attorneys may be considered a necessary and standard player in the real estate purchase process, or they may be used less often. Here’s what you need to know about the work a real estate attorney does and when you may need one in your corner.

How Much Does a Real Estate Attorney Cost?

You can expect a lawyer to have an established hourly rate, which varies by the experience, skill set and location of the attorney. The common rate for an attorney runs between $150 and $300 per hour, according to professional services network Thumbtack, though in major cities and at elite law firms, the rate can climb higher.

While hourly rates are the industry standard for attorneys, many real estate attorneys set flat rates for specific services that are common in real estate transactions.

If you’re using a real estate attorney because you’re buying a home, the total cost can be as much as a few thousand dollars.

However, this cost can replace the cost of other professionals you may use instead. “There’s a common misconception that a real estate attorney is going to cost more money than an agent and going through a title company,” says Jason Vanslette, an attorney and partner at law firm Kelley Kronenberg’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida, office. He adds: “A real estate attorney can do the same amount of things for the same fees."

When Do You Need a Real Estate Attorney?

You may need a real estate attorney to draw up documents, conduct due diligence on a property, attend a real estate closing or represent you in litigation regarding your property. Depending on where you live, a lawyer’s presence at closing may be required.

There are many states that don’t require attorneys to represent the buyer and seller in a transaction. In these cases a closing agent, who is often employed by the title insurance company, may oversee the signing of documents and finalizing the transaction.

After a deal has closed, a real estate attorney will play a major role if, say, issues arise that lead you to seek legal action against the seller for failing to disclose known defects about the property, or if problems with easements come up down the line or any threats to your right to title of the property become known.

In cases where you’re not using a lender or working with a title company – you’re transferring ownership to a relative, for example – you’re likely using a quitclaim deed, which you won’t see used by a closer from a title company. “Usually the only way you can get (a quitclaim deed) is if you have a lawyer draw it up or you do it yourself,” says Kendall Bonner, a licensed Florida attorney and broker and owner of Re/Max Capital Realty in Lutz, Florida.

You may be hesitant to hire an attorney early in your home search, but Vanslette makes the case for having an attorney represent you from the start, even if it’s not required. “You always get a real estate attorney when something goes wrong but … really you should try to get a real estate attorney whenever you’re going into a transaction,” he says.

Other situations may arise that involve real estate but won’t necessarily require a real estate attorney, like defending yourself against foreclosure or trying to deal with a landlord-tenant issue. Attorneys will separately focus on these categories without always additionally specializing in real estate, so seek out a professional who can best represent you based on the case you’re facing.

Pros and Cons of Hiring a Real Estate Attorney

If you’re on the fence about whether you want or need a real estate attorney, consider these pros and cons:

  • Pro: You don’t know what lies ahead.
  • Con: You may need title insurance anyway.
  • Pro: A lawyer knows where to look.
  • Con: You may need a different kind of attorney.

Pro: You don’t know what lies ahead. Even if your upcoming deal feels straightforward, an attorney can be a valuable asset in case problems or obstacles arise.

Con: You may need title insurance anyway. When you buy your home, your lender may require you to purchase title insurance for the property, which is an additional cost if you choose to work with a real estate attorney.

Pro: A lawyer knows where to look. An attorney representing you will know your situation and have the experience and knowledge to make sure every detail is in your best interest, from the mortgage documents to contingencies on an offer. Vanslette says a lawyer is more likely than other professionals to dig deep into the details of the minutes of a homeowners association meeting, for example, and point out potential costs down the road due to a planned major update for the community.

Con: You may need a different kind of attorney. Depending on the issue you’re facing, you may be better suited with a lawyer who knows landlord-tenant law, covers fair housing discrimination or specializes in estate planning.

How to Choose a Real Estate Attorney

As with any professional you hire, you should speak with an attorney and consider whether he or she will be a good fit to represent you. While you don’t always have time to be choosy when you’re faced with a lawsuit or need legal advice quickly, when possible it’s a good idea to speak with multiple attorneys, ask for references and select the one who best meets your needs.

To do this, start early. “I would say at the same time that you start getting on Zillow (to start shopping for a home) would be the same time you start getting in contact with a reputable real estate attorney,” Vanslette says.

Before you hire an attorney to represent you, ask these questions:

  • How long have you been a real estate attorney?
  • What kinds of cases do you handle?
  • Do you work individually or with a team?
  • What are your fees?

How long have you been a real estate attorney? Ask an attorney about his or her experience, as you would when interviewing a real estate agent. A long career as a lawyer doesn’t necessarily guarantee experience in real estate, so ask specifically about his or her work in real estate law.

What kinds of cases do you handle? An attorney may work more often with real estate investors or lenders rather than buyers and sellers. You want an attorney who is comfortable representing your role in a transaction or potential lawsuit.

Do you work individually or with a team? If you’re working with the partner of a large law firm that handles a lot of clients, you may expect to speak more often with an associate at the firm, paralegal or assistant for paperwork or other minor matters. In other cases, your attorney may do 100% of the work. It’s a good idea to know what to expect and assert your preference for the experience you want.

What are your fees? It’s not always ideal to go with the cheapest professional, but you also don’t want to hire an attorney you can’t afford. For budgetary purposes, you can ask if the attorney has an expected number of hours to complete the work you need done to determine the total expected cost.

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