Questions to Ask Your Real Estate Attorney

Questions to Ask Your Real Estate Attorney

The real estate market is full of complexities and jargon that you need legal guidance to understand. While real estate agents can help with property selection and price negotiation, a Sebastian real estate attorney can address the legal aspects of a transaction.

But how do you know if the attorney you're considering is the right fit for you?

By asking the right questions.

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How Many Years Have You Been Practicing in Real Estate Law?

Questions to Ask Your Real Estate Attorney

The first question you might ask is simple but revealing. It gives you an idea of the attorney's level of experience, which you need for any complex real estate transaction. You'll likely want someone who has spent a considerable amount of time handling cases similar to yours, as this can provide a sense of comfort and reliability.

What Real Estate Transactions Have You Mostly Handled?

Real estate transactions include everything from residential sales to commercial leases and from zoning issues to property disputes. Knowing which areas a prospective attorney has handled cases in can be helpful.

The type of transaction you're involved in can require a specialized skill set, and understanding whether the attorney has relevant experience is necessary.

  • Residential vs. Commercial: The legalities can differ between residential and commercial transactions. You'll want to know if the attorney has experience that aligns with your needs.
  • Types of Transactions: Ask if the attorney has experience handling transactions like short sales, foreclosures, or property auctions. These transactions have their own unique sets of challenges and legal procedures.
  • Multiple Roles: Real estate attorneys often serve in multiple capacities, such as mediators in disputes or as consultants during a transaction. Knowing which roles the attorney is comfortable with can help you better understand how they can serve your needs.

Additional questions to ask include:

  • Do you typically represent buyers, sellers, or both?
  • Have you handled transactions involving unconventional properties, like historical homes or agricultural land?

Have You Dealt with Properties in My Specific Area or Neighborhood?

Real estate is often about location, location, location—and this extends to real estate law. Local laws, zoning regulations, and community guidelines can differ widely, even within the same city or state.

An attorney familiar with the specific area or neighborhood where your property is can offer insights that others may not.

  • Local Regulations: Areas often have unique zoning laws, land use restrictions, and property codes. An attorney with local experience will be more familiar with these and can offer more tailored advice.
  • Community Guidelines: Some communities have specific rules and regulations, especially for homeowners associations (HOAs). An attorney familiar with local community guidelines can help with these.
  • Market Knowledge: An attorney with experience in a particular geographical area might have a general sense of market trends and property values, offering a more rounded service.

Additional questions include:

  • Have you previously dealt with any property disputes in this area?
  • Are you familiar with local property tax laws and exemptions that might be relevant to my situation?

What Specific Services Do You Offer?

Real estate law can include various activities, from drafting contracts to dispute resolution. Ask prospective attorneys what services they provide and whether they align with what you're looking for.

Understand the Real Estate Law

Do You Handle Both Residential and Commercial Properties?

This question cuts straight to the core of what you'll need for your specific transaction. The worlds of residential and commercial real estate are, while similar in some respects, quite different in terms of the legal issues that often arise. 

Residential transactions might deal more frequently with issues surrounding homeowners' associations, zoning for schools, and individual property rights. On the other hand, commercial transactions may delve into complex lease agreements, land use planning, and even environmental due diligence.

Knowing whether the attorney has experience in residential, commercial, or both can help you evaluate their suitability for your project.

For instance, commercial property transactions usually involve higher stakes and can be far more complex, requiring an understanding of business as well as real estate law.

Conversely, residential property law often involves a different set of concerns that might be more personal and emotional, like ensuring a home is safe for a family.

Can You Assist with Property Zoning Issues?

Zoning issues can often be a deal-breaker in real estate transactions. Whether it's land use restrictions, zoning changes, or conditional use permits, these matters require an understanding of local laws and regulations.

If you foresee any such issues in your transaction, or even if you just want to be ready for all possibilities, you need to know whether the attorney can assist you in this area.

Zoning laws are typically local, but they can be quite complex, often involving overlapping jurisdictions and regulatory bodies, not to mention differing requirements for residential, commercial, industrial, and other types of land use. 

The attorney's ability to handle these complex regulations can be essential for the successful acquisition or sale of a property, particularly if you intend to change its use or build on it in some way.

In commercial real estate, for instance, the property's zoning can affect everything from parking requirements to the type of business that can operate there. For residential properties, zoning might restrict how you can remodel or even what kind of pets you can keep.

When you ask this question, be aware of the depth of understanding the attorney shows. It's not just about knowing the zoning categories; it's about understanding how to negotiate with zoning boards, how to interpret and utilize the local zoning code, and how to potentially challenge or seek to change a zoning designation if necessary.

How Will We Communicate Throughout the Transaction?

Clear and prompt communication is essential when dealing with legal matters. Ask about the methods of communication your real estate attorney prefers—whether it's email, phone, or face-to-face meetings—and how often you can expect updates.

What is the attorney's response time for emails and phone calls? Who will be your primary point of contact?

What Are Your Fees and How Are They Structured?

Fee Structure

Understanding the fee structure will avoid any unexpected financial surprises down the line. Some attorneys charge by the hour, while others may offer a flat fee for certain services.

Is There a Retainer Fee?

Discussing financial terms upfront is necessary to set clear expectations and avoid surprises down the line. A retainer fee is an upfront cost that essentially retains the attorney for your legal matter.

This amount can vary significantly depending on the attorney, the complexity of your case, and the local market. Some attorneys might require a retainer fee that covers a certain number of hours of their work, while others might have a set fee that serves as a starting point for their services.

Understanding how the retainer fee is structured will also give you insights into how the attorney manages their practice.

For example, some might deduct their hourly charges directly from the retainer as they accrue, while others might bill you separately for services and hold the retainer as a form of security.

Ask whether the retainer is refundable and under what conditions, as policies can differ among law firms. This can have implications for your overall budget, especially if the transaction encounters unexpected delays or issues that require additional legal hours.

Are There Any Additional Costs That Might Arise?

This question aims to unearth any hidden or unexpected costs that can emerge during the course of your real estate transaction. Law firms often have different billing practices, and what one might consider part of their basic service package, another might bill as an additional cost.

For example, some firms might charge extra for services like document copying, courier services, or even long-distance phone calls related to your case.

Also, the complexity of your real estate transaction can introduce scenarios that require specialized knowledge or additional legal procedures. This can include the need for an appraisal, dealing with land use or zoning issues, or the need for additional negotiations and revised contract drafts. Each of these can potentially incur additional costs.

Getting a handle on what these extra costs might entail is helpful for budgeting appropriately for your transaction. It also allows you to compare services and fees among different attorneys more accurately.

While some might offer a lower hourly rate or flat fee, additional costs can accumulate, making it ultimately more expensive than initially perceived.

By asking about retainer fees and potential additional costs, you arm yourself with financial knowledge to help you better plan your real estate transaction and choose an attorney whose fee structure aligns with your financial capabilities and expectations.

Will Anyone Else Be Working on My Case?

It's not uncommon for attorneys to delegate work to junior associates, paralegals, or administrative staff. Knowing who will be working on your case and what their roles are can help you understand how your case will proceed.

What is the experience level of the team members? How are tasks divided among the team?

What Challenges Do You Anticipate in My Case?

No real estate transaction is without its challenges. Asking your attorney to identify potential obstacles in advance can prepare you for different scenarios.

What Is the Worst-Case Scenario?

Understanding the potential downsides of a real estate transaction is just as important as knowing its rewards. By asking the attorney about the worst-case scenarios, you're not just probing for their ability to anticipate problems; you're also determining their honesty.

Will they address the risks involved, or will they gloss over the details to secure you as a client?

Worst-case scenarios can range from delays in the transaction to legal disputes that halt proceedings altogether. In the context of a purchase, it can mean the discovery of liens or other encumbrances on the property that were not previously disclosed.

For a seller, it can mean the collapse of the deal due to the buyer's financial instability or a negative property appraisal.

The attorney's response to this question should give you a detailed overview of the potential risks of your particular transaction. This can include explanations of legal complexities, a rundown of common issues that have arisen in similar cases, and even a discussion about the financial repercussions of a failed transaction.

What Is Your Plan for Handling Challenges as They Arise?

This question aims to assess the attorney's problem-solving skills and adaptability. Real estate transactions are often complicated, involving multiple parties, diverse legal considerations, and lots of documents.

Challenges are almost inevitable, whether they come in the form of last-minute changes to the contract, unexpected findings in the title search, or unforeseen zoning issues.

An experienced attorney will not just react to challenges as they arise; they'll have proactive strategies to either avoid them altogether or to handle them efficiently when they do occur. This can involve contingency plans for various stages of the transaction, from negotiation to closing.

For example, if there are potential zoning issues with the property, the attorney might explain how they will approach negotiations with the local zoning board or how they will go about applying for a variance.

If the issue is financial, such as a lower-than-expected property appraisal affecting the loan amount, they might outline strategies for renegotiating the sale price or exploring alternative financing options.

By asking these questions, you not only get to assess the attorney's technical experience but also their strategic thinking and crisis management skills—qualities that can make all the difference in the successful completion of your real estate transaction.

Consult a Real Estate Lawyer Today

Jordan Lulich
Jordan Lulich, Real Estate Attorney

In summary, choosing the right real estate attorney requires careful thought and thorough questioning. Don't hesitate to ask about their experience, scope of services, communication style, fee structure, and more.

The answers to these questions can provide a better view of what you can expect, helping you make an informed decision that aligns with your needs.

When you face a real estate transaction or dispute, call a trusted real estate law firm in your area.