Do I need a lawyer to buy a house?

By: Peter R. Certo, Jr. Attorney at Law

For most people buying a house is the largest and most important financial decision we ever make. After dealing with the real estate agent and signing the contract it would be best to have a lawyer review the contract. Right? Wrong! That's like going to a doctor and asking if you removed your own appendix correctly. It's too late. At that point all we're talking about is damage control. The same goes for contracts. Once a contract is signed, any contract, it is likely binding on whoever signed it regardless of how bad the terms may be.

It is astonishing that most buyers will take the advice of the seller's real estate agent, when purchasing a home. We need to remember that the ones who most often get the worst of a real estate contract are the buyers, not the sellers. It is usually the sellers with the agent, not the buyers.

I understand that when people buy a house money is always tight. Between inspections, down payments, good faith deposits, and closing costs there's not a lot of cash left. A bad contract, however, can cost buyers losses often in the thousands of dollars. Yet most people treat lawyers the same as dentists, they don't go until it hurts. Unfortunately, that's when it costs the most. Many lawyers will be glad to review a real estate contract before you sign it for a reasonable fee for two reasons; 1) a competent attorney can spot problems in a contract very quickly; 2) a good job done on a real estate contract will often create a lifetime client for an attorney. If there is no problem with the contract, the cost relatively minor and, the peace of mind is great. On the other hand, if there is a problem, you can refuse to sign the contract, incur no further cost, and look for a better house.

On their face most contracts look reasonable. That's the way sellers and realtors want them to look. But keep in mind the problem usually lies in what the contract does NOT say. All the things you assumed, verbal assurances of the seller or their agent, and the things you don't know to look for, are what ultimately can get you in trouble. The only way to avoid these kinds of problems is to get legal advice early on, and, before you sign anything. The standard form contracts used by realtors are only a starting point but not necessarily the proper contract for you.