It is estimated that about 2.1 million Americans became homeowners in 2020. This figure represents a 2.6% annual increase in the number of homeowners in the United States. Real estate laws vary by state and local government and the transactions that are governed by these laws involve a lot of legal processes and paperwork that can be time-consuming, overwhelming, and very confusing. Hiring an attorney near you that specializes in real estate and property matters can go a long way in guiding you through these processes while ensuring compliance with the necessary state and local laws.
In fact, certain states mandatorily require that a real estate attorney be present at closing for all real estate transactions. These states, which are commonly referred to as attorney closing states, include Georgia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and West Virginia. Regardless of whether or not a real estate attorney is statutorily required to be present at your real estate closing, it is always in your best interest to have one present at all stages of your real estate transactions. Not only do these attorneys ensure that your transactions occur smoothly, but they also handle any post-transaction disputes that may come up. According to the National Center for State Courts, about 1% of the civil cases filed annually in state courts involve real property, with more than 133,980 real property cases filed in 2019 alone.
Real estate attorneys near you assist buyers and sellers of real property by performing the following actions:
- Making sure that all necessary documents and paperwork are in order
- Assisting during the inspection process
- Overseeing title searches and fund transfers, and closing
- Answering any questions you may have concerning the transaction process
- Offering advice and explaining your options to ensure that you get the best deal possible
- Resolving real estate disputes through out-of-court mediation and other alternative dispute resolution methods
- Providing adequate legal representation for real estate disputes that end up in court
Considering that buying and selling real property is a huge investment, any real estate attorney near you that you hire to handle these transactions has to be qualified and experienced enough to properly protect your interests. To make sure of this, you should ask your real estate attorney the following questions:
Where Are You Licensed to Practice Real Estate Law in the State You Are?
Whether your reason for hiring a real estate attorney is to oversee a real estate transaction or handle a real estate dispute, you should always make sure that this attorney is licensed to practice law in your state.
Real estate attorneys are licensed after going through a process that begins with writing the law school admission test, earning a law degree, passing a state-administered bar examination, and ends with being sworn in by the supreme court of the state where they intend to practice. Attorneys are typically only allowed to practice in the state where they obtained a license. However, some states have reciprocity agreements that allow qualified out-of-state licensed attorneys to practice in their trial courts. Examples include West Virginia, which has reciprocity agreements with states like New York, Ohio, and Illinois, and Pennsylvania, which has reciprocity agreements with Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee.
Note that while real estate matters are mostly handled at the state and local government levels, federal courts also have jurisdiction over some of these matters. This is usually the case in issues that involve parties from different states. Similar to state courts, federal courts also admit only licensed real estate attorneys to practice before them. The admission for practice in a federal court generally depends on the specific court. For example, the Southern District Court of Ohio admits only attorneys that were sworn in by the state's bar association while the Southern District Court of Texas admits any licensed attorneys that are in good standing with their original state bar association. Some federal courts like the District Court of Kansas and the Western District Court of Missouri also have reciprocity agreements with each other.
Contact the bar association of your state of residence to confirm the license status of any real estate attorney near you. If you have a real estate matter that is filed in a federal court, then you should also contact that court to confirm that your attorney has been admitted to practice before it.
What Kind of Real Estate Work Do You Handle?
Real estate attorneys typically serve two functions, which are:
- Handling the legal aspects of a real estate transaction
- Resolving real estate disputes through litigation or alternative resolution methods
While performing these duties, some real estate attorneys may further specialize by focusing solely on residential real estate practice areas like buying and selling a home and resolving tenancy disputes or commercial real practice estate areas like zoning issues and construction and development projects. Considering this, it is always a good idea to find out the particular area of real estate law that your attorney specializes in. Make sure that this area is relevant to the type of real estate matter that you need to take care of.
How Long Have You Been in Practice?
Experience is an important factor to consider when you want to employ a real estate attorney near you. A real estate attorney that has years of experience in handling real estate transactions can provide you with more guidance and advice than a less experienced real estate attorney.
Find out when your attorney was licensed and the volume of real estate law work that your attorney has handled since then. Real estate attorneys and law firms typically indicate this information on their official websites and you can contact the bar association of your state of residence to verify it. Per the American Bar Association's recommendation, you should also ask for a caseload breakdown to give you an idea of the volume of real estate work that your real estate attorney has handled.
Do You Charge Fixed or Hourly Fees?
Real estate attorneys generally utilize a flat fee structure to charge for their services. With this structure, your attorney charges you a specific amount to perform a specified function like drafting a purchase and sale agreement or reviewing title documents. This fee usually ranges from $500 to $1,500, and it is dependent on your attorney, the type of function that is to be performed, and its level of complexity. Nonetheless, some real estate attorneys also charge hourly fees of about $150 - $350 per hour for their services. While an hourly fee may seem like the cheaper option, you can end up paying more fees in the long run if your matter goes on longer than anticipated.
As such, you should always confirm from your real estate attorney how you will be charged. Also, make sure that you are given a clear understanding of the services that your fees will cover. If your attorney utilizes an hourly fee structure, then it is a good idea to get a written agreement that stipulates the number of hours you expect to work with this attorney. This way, you can avoid ending up with an undefined number of billable hours. You should also discuss a preferred payment method. Many real estate attorneys accept payments made via check, debit, or credit cards, and mobile wallets.
Do You Charge for an Initial Consultation?
While many real estate attorneys near you would offer free initial consultations, it is always a good idea to confirm this with your attorney. You can do this when setting up this meeting. You should also use the initial consultation to determine whether this real estate attorney is the best fit for you. Ask questions and get clarifications on any issues that are unclear to you. This can include issues like the attorney's fee structure, and the possibility of complications arising from your real estate matter.
How Do You Keep Clients Informed about Their Case?
You should always find out how your real estate attorney will keep you informed on the ongoing details of your real estate matter. One-off activities like reviewing real estate documents or overseeing a real estate closing may not require further communication between you and your attorney. However, if you are involved in a real estate dispute, then proper communication is vital to achieving a satisfactory outcome at the end of the day. Rule 1.4 of the American Bar Association's model rules of professional conduct obligates attorneys to perform certain actions regarding attorney-client communications. These actions are:
- Promptly informing their clients of any change in circumstances or new decisions concerning their legal matter
- Reasonably consulting with clients on ways to achieve any agreed-upon goals and objectives
- Keeping clients reasonably informed and updated on the status of their ongoing legal matters
- Promptly responding to any reasonable request for information made by clients
Many real estate attorneys comply with this rule by devising a communications plan that lets their clients know how often they will receive updates on their real estate matter, the method through which these updates will be delivered, and who will be delivering these updates. You should tailor this plan to suit your needs. Discuss with your attorney and agree on whether your matter will require daily, bi-weekly, weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly updates. Also, confirm whether these updates will be made in-person or via methods like phone calls and emails. If these updates are to come from your real estate attorney's junior associate, paralegal, or legal assistant, then you should also get clarification on who you should contact if an emergency occurs.
Who Will Actually Do the Work?
When you hire a real estate attorney near you, there is a chance that some of the work involved in handling your matter may be done by junior associates or paralegals. This chance increases if your attorney has a high caseload or is a senior associate in a prestigious law firm. Some of the work that junior associates and paralegals typically handle includes:
- Facilitating communication between attorneys and clients
- Analyzing title documents and legal descriptions of property
- Monitoring foreclosures and other financial transactions
- Conducting research
- Distributing real estate documents
- Preparing contracts, lease agreements, and closing documents
Always make sure that any work done by a junior associate or paralegal is properly reviewed by your real estate attorney. Per Rule 5.3 of the American Bar Association's model rules of professional conduct, your attorney may be held liable for any acts of misconduct by these individuals while they are performing these activities. Note that paralegals are not licensed legal practitioners, As such, they cannot offer you legal advice, nor can they represent you in court nor set their fees. All these activities must be done by a licensed real estate attorney.
Can You Provide References from Former Clients?
Asking for references from former clients is a good way to gauge a real estate attorney's reputation and professionalism. Many real estate attorneys have testimonials pages on their websites dedicated to posting reviews from their former clients. If you are not comfortable with reviews obtained solely from your attorney, then you can also get reviews by either utilizing lawyer review websites or contacting the bar association of your state of residence. Word-of-mouth reviews from friends, family, colleagues, and courthouse officials near you are also a good way to gauge the reputation of a real estate attorney.
What Is Your Success Rate?
A real estate attorney's success rate generally refers to how often this attorney achieves a client's desired outcome. While there is no specific platform for calculating this information, you can find out your real estate attorney's success rate through various means. One way is by telling your attorney what you expect at the end of the day, and asking your attorney to give you an idea of how likely it is that this outcome will be achieved. Attorneys that claim to achieve an outcome 100% of the time, or sound unusually optimistic about achieving an outcome without mentioning any possibility of failure are probably being dishonest. You can also ascertain a real estate attorney's success rate by visiting local courthouses and requesting copies of court records that detail cases the attorney has litigated. Finally, you can contact the attorney's past clients to see if they were satisfied with not just the attorney's services, but also the outcome of their real estate matter.
When Should I Hire a Real Estate Attorney?
Some states like Georgia, West Virginia, and Massachusetts mandatorily require the presence of a real estate attorney during certain real estate transactions. Regardless of whether or not you reside in a state that mandates the hiring of a real estate attorney, it is always a good idea to get one practicing near you, especially if you find yourself in any of the following situations:
- You are selling a home that is part of a divorce settlement
- You are buying a home that is located in another state
- You are buying a home through a special type of sale
- You are selling a home that belonged to a family member
- You are buying or selling a property that has structural damage or other serious issues
- You need to review community interest development documents and agreements
- You need to come up with co-buyer documents and agreements for a property that you purchased jointly with other individuals
- You are trying to sell a property that has liens on it
- You need to structure a private loan from a friend or relative to purchase a property
- You wish to rent a home for an extended period before you are obligated to buy it
- You want to ensure that the current tenant of the home you want to purchase will move out before closing
- You discover problems in the title report of your property
- You discover that legal claims have been made against your prospective property
What Are the Typical Qualifications Held by a Real Estate Attorney?
Real estate attorneys are mandatorily required to have a bachelor's degree, a law degree, and a state-issued license before they can practice real estate law. Note that although there are no specified majors for the bachelor's degree, many aspiring real estate attorneys offer courses in economics, analytics, public speaking, and logic. Real estate attorneys that practice in states like Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas also have the option of obtaining voluntary board certification and specialization in real estate law.