Real Estate and Attorneys
Here in the Northeast, attorneys are an integral part of virtually every real estate transaction from the simplest to the more complex. In other regions of the nation, however, known as title states, attorneys are much less frequently involved in the normal residential transaction. Those are handled through the real estate licensees and title companies.
The primary reason we have attorneys engaged in the real estate transactions here in the Northeast is to handle the title searches, banking and the closing documents. Could title companies do those, yes, but it is not the present customary practice in the Northeast.
In the larger metropolitan areas like Boston, Hartford and New York City, real estate brokers most commonly prepare offers but then the process is turned over to the attorneys who draw up the purchase agreements. This is a widespread practice in much of New York State but none of these practices are required under the law, they have just evolved.
In Berkshire County and over the border in Vermont, most brokers still prepare the purchase and sales agreements using forms created by boards of realtors, although some of the newer younger agents appear to be leaning toward bringing lawyers into the transaction sooner.
A real estate transaction evolves out of negotiation and then transforms into a process of handling documents and this is where the attorneys spend the majority of their time, unless of course there is some controversy or problem that arises that is legal in nature in which case, by definition, the real estate licensee must step back and allow the lawyers to handle it.
Attorneys are by training advocates for their client, they are not negotiators per se but of course some lawyers will profess to be "deal makers and not deal breakers." Nevertheless, so much rides on the personality and style of the attorney or attorneys involved as to how things turn out, whereas with the real estate licensees, their training is to do all they can to put a deal together through give-and-take negotiation. I have seen significant terms in a previously negotiated agreement changed by an attorney for one side or the other that then kills the sale. It doesn't happen very often but it can.
Attorneys often step into a transaction very far into a listing and negotiation and as such they don't know the personalities of their client very well or the history of the listing process or negotiation and thus they may be tempted to make snap recommendations or assert a view or position that is out of sync with the entire process.
Of course, clients don't have to follow their attorney's advice when it comes to optional matters but they often do, thinking the attorney somehow knows best. Some attorneys will even act without the knowledge or consent of their client because they believe they know what is best. That may or may not be the case so consider carefully the style of the attorney you select and weigh your attorney's advice just as you should weigh the advice and input from everyone your hire whether it is the real estate agent, an inspector, bank lender, or contractor.
In brief, be a fully informed and engaged consumer of all professional services.
When is it the right time to hire your attorney? Whenever you feel the need for legal advice is the simple answer or whenever you don't understand any aspect of the transaction and particularly when it has legal implications. Keep in mind that every document you are asked to sign regarding a real estate transaction is potentially legally binding and as such you need to take full responsibility for fully comprehending the document or for seeking the advice of an attorney if you don't.
Safe is far better than sorry in matters as important as these.
Paul Harsch, president and founder of Harsch Associates, a Berkshire County based real estate brokerage firm, is a licensed real estate broker in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, serving a diverse residential, business, commercial and land client base for 40 years.