A recent New York Times article identifies the reasons why an overwhelming majority of purchasers of homes in New York City are represented by attorneys.  As the article notes, that is not the practice in many other parts of the U.S.   The reasons for hiring an attorney for a home purchase that are identified in the article are the following:

purchase of a home is complicated; purchase of a home is a big investment, making it wise to have representation; an attorney can provide calm counsel in the midst of an emotional transaction; attorneys have special skills that are useful or at least helpful in connection with a home purchase; and an experienced attorney can help a buyer overcome obstacles that arise in connection with a home purchase.

The balance of this post discusses each of the reasons identified above.

A Home Purchase is Complicated.   Yes and no.  On the one hand, most states have a standard form of purchase agreement that is used for most residential transactions and conventions for allocating closing costs.   Financing documents are almost always form documents that are difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate.  Title to most homes is clear, and title problems are unusual.  On the other hand, unscrupulous or just hard-bargaining sellers can take advantage of naive buyers who do not understand the standard forms and practices.  A good and experienced realtor can do much to help a buyer in this area, although a realtor representing the seller will have no obligation to do so, and a realtor representing both buyer and seller is limited in the assistance provided to one or the other.  A realtor, lender or title company closer may identify a title defect, although none of those people has any obligation to do so.  This is an area where an attorney can be helpful, but is not needed for every transaction.

Purchase of a Home is a Big Investment.  It certainly is the biggest investment that most families will ever make.  However, most buyers who purchase without being represented by an attorney do fine, and problems are rare.  Again, an attorney can prevent a costly mistake, but mistakes are rare.

An Attorney Can Provide Calm Counsel.   Buying a home is an emotional experience for most purchasers, and having a calm, disinterested advisor can be helpful.  Because problems are rare, as noted above, that calm counsel may not be necessary.  On the other hand, if a buyer wants the emotional support, an attorney is a good choice.

Attorneys Have Special Skills.  As with all of the reasons, this is certainly true, and can prevent a catastrophe, as well as being a relief and a comfort to a buyer.  An experienced real estate attorney will know the local market and practices, and will have special training in the areas of legal liability and title evaluation.  For some purchases, like the purchase of a condominium, townhome or cooperative unit, an understanding of the applicable law and, even more importantly, of the homeowners’ association’s finances, is very difficult for a buyer to gain without the help of an attorney.  In fact, for those purchases, it maybe difficult for a buyer to understand exactly what the buyer is purchasing without the help of a good attorney.  It is also true that a large majority of purchases proceed smoothly without any legal issues arising.

A Good Attorney Can Help a Buyer Overcome Obstacles.  While significant obstacles are rare, if one does arise in connection with the purchase of a home, an experienced attorney certainly can help remove many obstacles.   A buyer who knows his or her legal rights is in a good position to negotiate a settlement in the face of an obstacle that threatens a purchase transaction.

Ultimately, each buyer should decide whether he or she wants to be represented by an attorney in purchasing a home.  Being represented by an attorney can be helpful and comforting, but may not be necessary.  If a buyer chooses to be represented by an attorney, the buyer should take care to engage an attorney who has experience in representing buyers of residential real estate, and if the home is a condominium, townhome or cooperative, the attorney should be familiar with the special laws and financing issues that affect those types of properties.