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The real estate law process

Handling real estate requires detailed contracts and intimate knowledge of the real estate law process. Buyers and sellers can sometimes proceed solo, but often benefit from a lawyer.

Here's an overview of the key steps in the real estate process, along with foreclosures, construction defects, and property disputes.

Home purchases and sales

The process of buying or selling a home varies slightly from market to market, but it usually involves a buyer, a seller, real estate agents, and real estate lawyers. Common steps include:

Purchase offer

Once buyers decide that they want to acquire property, the next step is to create a purchase offer and sign a real estate contract. These components confirm that the buyers have committed to moving forward with the real estate transaction.

Yet even at this point, any number of contingencies can allow buyers to exit the contract. Many real estate transactions rely on standard purchase agreement forms that may not include all the necessary language for a transaction. To ensure that an agreement works for their purchasing situation, buyers can work with a lawyer to develop more specific contractual language.

Disclosure review

Sellers are responsible for providing buyers with disclosure documents. These documents reveal a range of issues, including:

  • Improvements that sellers have made to the property
  • Any history of pest problems on the property
  • Noteworthy neighborhood issues
  • Ongoing property line disputes

Sellers must also offer a preliminary title report, along with local documentation, such as a geological survey. If any of these issues seem negative or problematic, buyers can exit the contract.

Appraisal

Before completing the loan paperwork, lenders will usually ask a third party to complete an appraisal for the property. The appraiser confirms that the home's contract price is in fact a fair price compared to the rest of the neighborhood.

Inspections

A home inspection is a key part of the real estate process, and involves a complete check of the home's structure and systems. After the general property inspection, buyers may opt to have a more specialized inspection for a particular system. If the inspection reveals structural or systematic issues, buyers can negotiate repairs with sellers.

Walk-through

Before the transaction closes, buyers can walk through the property one last time to make sure that the condition hasn't changed or that the seller has completed any required updates or changes. If pre-existing issues are still present, buyers may be able to delay the closing until the issues are resolved.

Closing

Once all components of the transaction become confirmed and approved, buyers and sellers sign documents to close the property. Buyers are also responsible for paying closing costs, as well as payments for property taxes and homeowner's insurance.

Estimated cost and time

A standard real estate transaction requires at least 10 hours of a lawyer's time. Real estate lawyers typically charge a flat fee of about $2,000 or an hourly fee between $100 and $300.

Foreclosures

Lenders begin foreclosure proceedings when homeowners fall behind on mortgage payments. The first step in the process is a foreclosure notice. This confirms that the lender will begin foreclosure proceedings if the owner doesn't catch up on mortgage payments.

If homeowners don't become current on the loan after receiving this notice, foreclosure proceedings start. There are three types of foreclosure homeowners may experience:

  • Judicial foreclosure: Lenders file with the judicial system, which notifies homeowners that they must remit payment within 30 days. If homeowners fail to pay, the property sells at auction.

  • Power of sale: This process is similar to a judicial foreclosure. However, in a power of sale, the lender completes the public auction.

  • Strict foreclosure: One of the least common types of foreclosure, a strict foreclosure requires lenders to file a lawsuit against homeowners. If homeowners fail to pay what they owe, the mortgage holder becomes the owner of the property.

Due to the risks involved in foreclosure, it's often worth seeking the assistance of an attorney. Foreclosure attorneys charge either a flat fee between $1,500 and $4,000 or an hourly rate between $100 and $300. Some attorneys may charge a monthly rate, since foreclosures can be lengthy.

Construction defects

Defects in home construction can lead to reduced property values or catastrophic failures. Construction defects typically fall into one of two categories:

  • Defects related to design, construction materials, or workmanship, which include issues such as structural failure, faulty plumbing, poor insulation, leaky roofs, improper environmental controls, and more.

  • Defects related to earth settlement problems, which result from poor drainage and grading, landslides, underground water sources, and more.

The construction defect law process starts when homeowners serve respondents — builders, developers, or general contractors — with a notice that they intend to begin legal proceedings. Over a specified time, homeowners meet with respondents and dispute resolution facilitators. Together, the parties find a resolution and a timeframe.

Dealing with construction defects requires in-depth knowledge of documenting defects and proving their causes, so most homeowners will benefit from hiring an attorney to guide them through the real estate law process. To manage construction defect issues, most lawyers charge an hourly rate between $100 and $300.

Property disputes

Property disputes arise in a number of forms, including zoning and land use disputes, mortgage disputes, insurance claims, and inheritance claims. One of the most common types of property disputes involves the property's title and boundary lines. Clear property lines and good neighbors may help you avoid property line disputes, but these issues can also escalate quickly.

If discussing a property line dispute with your neighbors doesn’t work, a real estate attorney can help ease the process. Resolving a dispute can involve everything from researching and analyzing property lines to drafting legal documents that solidify solutions.

Some common property line lawsuits include asking a judge to determine a property's legal owner and take legal action to remove neighbors' property from your own. In general, real estate lawyers charge an hourly rate for handling property disputes. This rate typically ranges from $100 to $300 per hour.

Buyers, sellers, and homeowners can often pursue simple real estate issues on their own. But when real estate is anything less than straightforward, an attorney can offer informed advice for navigating the real estate law process.

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