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Real estate attorneys are responsible for preparing and reviewing transactional documents and helping clients with the closing process. They draft purchase agreements, perform title searches, write title insurance policies, disburse funds, and prepare federally mandated HUD-1 settlement statements. They can also help clients understand the tax implications of selling a home. In the case of a dispute between the buyer, seller, or a third party, real estate attorneys also defend clients in court. Even if there is no identifiable dispute over the transaction, an attorney will make sure everyone “plays by the rules” during the purchase or sale.
In some cases, it’s possible to purchase residential or commercial real estate without consulting a real estate lawyer. However, legal representation is required in approximately 20 states, and some jurisdictions require a lawyer to be present at the closing. Usually, real estate attorneys take over once real estate agents have an offer in hand. Buyers are encouraged to consult an attorney when purchasing damaged or bank-owned property or real estate located in high-risk areas. Attorneys can also assist out-of-town buyers and negotiate favorable solutions if liens, structural issues, or legal challenges crop up during the procurement.
Real estate transactions may seem cut and dried, but it’s common for unforeseen difficulties to arise. Attorneys who represent buyers or sellers can facilitate a successful transaction while protecting their clients’ interests and preventing costly mistakes. On the buyer’s side, attorneys can provide advice related to financing, estate planning, tax law, and first-time home buyer credits. Real estate attorneys can also help sellers who are dealing with challenges due to liens, structural damage, probate disputes, or uncooperative partners.
Real estate includes land, permanent structures, and natural resources, such as water, minerals, and trees. Property typically describes personal items and belongings that aren’t permanently attached to land. The transfer of real property includes the bundle of legal rights, which give landowners the freedom to possess or occupy the property, enjoy their land without interference, restrict others’ access to the property, and dispose of their ownership rights as they see fit.
In most cases, liens stay attached to the property until the debt is satisfied or the debtor files for bankruptcy. The creditor’s rights vary depending on whether the lien is voluntary or involuntary. Additionally, if a lien has been perfected, that lienholder has priority over other creditors. Voluntary liens are most common when homeowners use their property as collateral against a secured loan. Involuntary liens are typically related to back taxes, court judgments, and child support. Properties are also subject to involuntary mechanic’s or materialman’s liens in case a customer or contractor fails to pay for materials or labor. Liens don’t necessarily prevent someone from transferring property, but most buyers want a title that’s free and clear.
Lawyers perform critical functions during every stage of the closing process. They draft and review documents, negotiate contracts, and finalize all of the details needed to close the sale. Attorneys who represent buyers can negotiate the terms of sales contracts, including contingencies, perform title searches to ensure that the seller can legally transfer ownership, and resolve issues related to third-party claims, liens, and easements. They can also assist with loan paperwork, title insurance, and other financial matters, such as taxes and transfer fees. Real estate attorneys who represent sellers are responsible for handling deeds, insurance declarations, and payoff letters.
Not necessarily. Some states require a real estate attorney to be present at the closing, but there are some situations when you might consider hiring one even if it's optional where you live. Examples might include:
Generally speaking, no, because the seller and buyer have different priorities when it comes to a home sale, and some of those interests conflict. States have specific laws governing whether or not a real estate lawyer can represent the buyer and seller, and if this does happen, there's often a waiver that has to be signed by both parties acknowledging a conflict exists. States may have different names for a document like this, but it's usually called a Conflict Waiver. Acceptable exceptions for using the same real estate lawyer might include a property being transferred from one family member to another, such as a father to his son.
Some states require a closing attorney, while others deem it optional. The cost of hiring a closing attorney varies widely by the state and law firm you choose. You can expect to pay between $2,500 and $3,000 for a simple buy/sell transaction, but keep in mind that this cost is likely to vary depending on your location and the complexities of the closing.
Technically, no, you don't need a lawyer to sell land, but there are some situations when it might be a good idea. You might consider hiring an attorney if you are faced with existing boundary disputes, involved in a sale of land that's partially wetland, or in circumstances concerning tax issues. Specific laws related to land vary by state, but one potential issue is the tax rate, which can differ depending on whether the land can have structures built on it.
Lawyers can assist buyers and sellers in transactions involving bank financing. They can review the fine print, any title insurance declarations, and the mortgage terms. A real estate attorney also will ensure that funds are distributed to the correct parties, especially if there are any outstanding mortgages or liens that need to be paid before the title transfer.