Q. I am selling my house. Do I need to hire an attorney, and if so, when should I do so?

A. You should absolutely hire an attorney to represent you in selling your house. Real estate transactions are becoming more and more complicated with new laws governing the process, and even the most nominal mistake can prove costly in the long run.

Most sellers start the process by fixing up their home and selecting a realtor to list the property. You'll want to make sure your realtor is licensed in Illinois, and make sure that you sign a representation agreement that, at a minimum, sets forth the realtor's commission and the duration of time that you agree to list your house with that realtor. The commission is usually a percentage of the ultimate sales price, usually between 4-6%. Be sure to shop around when selecting a realtor, but don't make your choice solely based on a low commission. A realtor may offer the "lowest" rate, but the old rule that "you get what you pay for" applies even in real estate. Locally, I've dealt with Mike Buder (ReMax, 708-418-4444) and would recommend you contact him if you're in need of a realtor. Mike has knowledge of the local market, which is very important in this market and can make the difference between trying to sell your house and actually selling your house.

Once you've selected your realtor, you may want to engage the services of an attorney. My clients usually find it helpful to have me review the contract between them and the realtor before signing. Once you've signed the contract with your realtor, and the house is listed, you shouldn't need your attorney again until you receive an offer from a prospective buyer. In fact, many sellers don't hire an attorney until they've accepted an offer on their home.

When a buyer decides to make an offer on your house, they will present the offer to your realtor, who will bring it to you. At this point, you may want to engage your attorney again. Although most real estate contracts allow for an "attorney review period" during which time you can re-negotiate its terms or void the contract, I always recommend you have your attorney review the contract before signing it. Your attorney can then ensure from the outset that your interests are protected.

Once the real estate contract is agreed upon by all parties, and signed, your attorney will then start taking steps toward closing the deal, such as ordering a title policy, drafting a deed, bill of sale and affidavit of title, making sure all local laws are complied with, ordering a plat of survey and obtaining other documents to ensure a smooth closing. After the buyer's lender has approved the purchase, your attorney will schedule the closing with the title company and make sure all documents are in order well in advance.

At the closing, your attorney should review all documents with you prior to your signing. No matter how familiar your attorney is with the real estate process, make sure they explain each and every document to you before signing, and then read them yourself. I have seen far too many closings where a lawyer simply shuffles through papers and directs the client to "just sign by the X" without any sort of explanation. You're paying your attorney for this time, so make sure you get your money's worth. After the closing is completed, be sure to retain a copy of all documents you signed.

Although nobody can guarantee a smooth real estate closing, engaging the services of an attorney from the outset who is knowledgeable in this arena can certainly make matters easier. Best of luck to you in your upcoming move!