- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2000

Buying or selling a house can be a difficult and emotional experience, especially in today's hot market, where houses are selling within days of being listed for sale.

Buyers feel pressured to act fast, and sellers are often flooded with several appealing offers.
So how do you get the best deal?
Hire a lawyer.
Real estate attorneys act as a buffer to remove emotions from the home buying or selling process. They can help you negotiate the best deal, protect you from potential problems and may even be able to arrange a discount from the title company.
Attorneys work with brokers to organize and finalize the details of the closing, and with lenders to ensure that documents are prepared promptly and correctly. Of course, they offer assistance if something out of the ordinary happens.
Hiring a real estate attorney is not as expensive as you might think. On average, it should cost about $500, which is a small percentage of the overall house expenditure.
Despite these benefits, industry analysts estimate that less than 5 percent of the population use real estate attorneys when buying or selling a home. Realtors agree, pointing out that most parties who bring an attorney have special circumstances, such as buyers who are purchasing a home to be used as a rental property.
Otherwise, the presence of an attorney is rare unless something goes wrong before settlement.
Both buyers and sellers benefit from the services of a real estate attorney. One helpful aspect of having a lawyer involved in a sale is the "attorney approval rider." This lets the client sign a contract without the attorney present, but allows the attorney to approve or reject it upon review.
People who decide to build a house may especially require the services of an attorney who will provide protection in case the builder defaults, or if the builder delivers a substandard product.
Any type of unusual transaction may also require legal services. For example, unrelated buyers may want to sign a partnership agreement before purchasing a house together. Buyers or sellers who are legally separated but not yet divorced may need an attorney to protect their financial interests.
Real estate agents argue that attorneys are not necessary if the transaction is not complicated.
"Real estate contracts are pretty standard," says Karen Sirota, a Realtor in Long & Foster's Baltimore office. She says that "if both parties have confidence in their Realtors, there's no need for an attorney. Honestly, I don't want my clients to use an attorney, because if you pay money for an attorney, you're going to expect him to find something wrong."
Ms. Sirota concedes that attorneys are helpful if problems arise. One seller considered hiring an attorney after buyers backed out of a contract. The buyers wanted their deposit back, but the seller didn't want to comply. Ms. Sirota was able to handle the situation without an attorney, and both parties walked away happy.
Another seller lost a contract when the buyer lost his job just one week before settlement. The buyer was no longer approved for a mortgage. Another seller lost a contract to a particularly choosy buyer, who was not satisfied with the home inspection. Attorneys were called in to handle these Problems.
Attorneys believe that many pre-settlement problems could be avoided if they were brought in from the beginning. Maryland lawyer Mark Newman says that a real estate transaction can be complicated, and that buyers and sellers rely on their agents to walk them through the process. Buyers are in an especially precarious position, because all of the parties involved technically represent the seller.
"No one gets paid if the deal doesn't close," Mr. Newman says. A lawyer will review the documents to ensure that the buyer's interests are properly covered.
Byron Huffman, a real estate attorney who practices in the District and suburban Maryland, agrees. "An attorney can catch errors in a contract and render them unenforceable," he says. Mr. Huffman says while errors are not typical, a lawyer's advice can benefit either the buyer or the seller.
Mr. Newman and Mr. Huffman say few of their real estate clients are involved in residential transactions.
Mr. Newman says that most of his residential clients are executives of large companies who are accustomed to hiring attorneys for other purposes. Typically, they are buying very expensive homes.
Mr. Huffman estimates less than 1 percent of his yearly real estate clients are involved in residential transactions. Most of these clients are involved in "For Sale by Owner" transactions. They hire Mr. Huffman to draw up the necessary legal documents.
Mr. Newman and Mr. Huffman agree that the lawyer is the only person in the transaction who does not have a vested interest in seeing the deal close. Attorneys are strategists who can structure a deal to the advantage of the buyer or seller.
Attorney's fees are relatively inexpensive when factored into the home-buying process.
Mr. Newman estimates prices to range from $500 to $600, while Mr. Huffman has a flat fee of $445, plus expenses (such as filing fees).
So where do you find a real estate attorney? Word-of-mouth is a good start. Realtors or title offices may be helpful as well. Lawyers advertise for many services, but it is unusual to see an ad for real estate purposes. Web sites provide legal directories, and are typically organized by counties.
Mr. Huffman gets many calls from his ad in the yellow pages.
Mr. Newman says, "It is important to interview several potential attorneys before you hire one. It is necessary to establish a good rapport in order to have confidence and trust [in your choice]."
Make sure that your attorney has handled a minimum of 50 closings within each of the past three years, he says.
So why do most people make the biggest financial purchase of their lives without a lawyer?
"I didn't even know it was an option," says homeowner Mark Wingrat, who recently bought a house in Baltimore County .
Mr. Wingrat, 44, says he found the home-buying experience "intimidating," and not without its share of problems. "There were problems with our home inspection, and I felt pressured to sign documents that I was not comfortable signing. I wish I had known that hiring an attorney from the start was an option."
Mr. Wingrat plans to use an attorney for future real estate transactions. He says he strongly believes that an attorney could bring "confidence and objective clarity" to a real estate transaction.
"Hiring an attorney would be like buying peace of mind," he says. "And that's priceless."

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