By Deborah Gimelson, Brown Harris Stevens
People think that hiring a real estate attorney in New York City is a simple thing, but this is no longer the case. The easy, smooth transaction is something of a dinosaur, with almost every deal these days presenting an issue. Your attorney needs to be experienced, proactive and responsive. Here are some questions and things to consider to make sure you are hiring the right person for your particular situation.
How do I find a real estate attorney?
Ask people you trust, or people who have bought and sold a lot of real estate in NYC, for referrals. Ask your broker for recommendations. Do not dive into the white pages on this one – that is akin to gambling. Narrow it down to three and interview each one. The following questions can guide you to a good decision.
How long has the attorney been practicing?
Your attorney should have covered some career ground. Ask him his experience with co-ops, condos, single family houses, or whatever pertains to you. Ask what was the most difficult issue they ever had to address and resolve. Ask also for the profile of their typical client – by price range, income, industry - so you can determine if you fit the profile or not. There may be attorneys who specialize, for instance, in first time buyers or investments, and others who handle a lot of clients from a certain field like finance or entertainment.
What and how do they charge?
People think that attorneys charge too much, but the truth is a lot more money has been lost in real estate transactions by NOT hiring an attorney or hiring the wrong one. I had a client use his brother as counsel, a nice guy who had just passed the bar the week before. We spent an entire day waiting for the paperwork to arrive because he did not order it in advance of the transaction. Everything was subject to harsh rush fees, especially bank documents. The standard rate for an attorney is around $2500-3500 and most work for a flat fee. If your attorney charges by the hour, think twice and ask if a flat fee is possible. Ask if you will still be charged even when a closing does not take place. Some very good firms will not charge you unless a deal goes through. When you consider what you are paying for NYC real estate and the problems that can be avoided by a seasoned attorney, almost any amount is small.
Has your attorney done many deals in the building or neighborhood and what kind of atmosphere is created in the law office?
This may not seem essential, but an attorney well-versed in polished Upper East Side townhouse practices may not understand what is happening with a one-bedroom in Harlem. Some of the larger firms have people knowledgeable in most areas of the city. Smaller, local attorneys – found these days mostly in Brooklyn or other outer boroughs - can often get the job done because of long held neighborhood connections that a larger firm may not have. They can also be quirky in how they do business. Some people find it especially charming to walk into an office lined with old record albums - some want a more traditional atmosphere. Ask the attorney about local experience and general office ambiance. Get specific.
Ask how accessible he or she will be during the transaction.
Many attorneys have capable assistants who read and process all documents. Ask how much of the actual work will be done by the primary attorney and how much of it will be handled by their assistants. This is not usually a problem, but you want to know you can get your attorney on the phone or over email. Make sure you will have the access you require. This need differs from person to person and even deal to deal.
In addition, you can contact the Bar Association in NYC and the Better Business Bureau. Make sure no complaints or litigations involve your attorney. Some even have Yelp reviews. All in all, there are many attorneys to choose from. Doing your homework to find an attorney that best suits you, will be time and money well spent.
Happy buying and selling!