I often get asked how I found the real estate lawyer my husband and I used for the purchase of our apartment. Before I get into that let me just make clear that – at least in New York City – you will need a lawyer to follow through the purchase of an apartment. (In our case, a coop.) So any imaginings you may have had of saving yourself the money and just reading up on things yourself can be put to rest. Get a lawyer. If, after you’ve exhausted all your personal resources, you can’t get a decent referral to a good, cheap lawyer, go it alone. There are a lot of guides out there on how to find an attorney. Use them. This is how I found ours:
1) Go online. Streeteasy, Trulia, BrickUnderground. Sites like these are a repository of not only information, but experience. I don’t mean just that people with experience are online. People who are or have experienced what you are or will go through are there. You know how they say there are no original ideas? Yeah. That. Many people have already asked your questions for you and many people may have already answered. If you’re looking for a lawyer recommendation, somebody will have recommended one.
Find a few recommendations online make sense for your situation: They must be based in New York City (or whatever area you are buying in). They must have experience with your particular type of purchase (co-op, condo, loft, HDFC, etc.) Your loan officer (if you go directly to a lender) or real estate broker will also be able to recommend somebody. But do not let yourself be pushed into using them.
2) Speak with them. Call them all up and speak to all of them. Yes, all of them. Even if you think you’ve found “the one” on the first call. Consider the time you spend on the phone to be a learning experience that you have to see through to the end. Be sure to notice their phone manner. How quickly they return your call after you leave a message is already noteworthy. How confident are they (“oh, I’m sure we can figure this out together” does not cut it.) And are they forthcoming with information like: their fee structure, the general timeline of a purchase, etc. I personally liked how willing my lawyer was to share his knowledge with me before we even officially hired him. He was not pushy at all and spoke with me at length, answering my questions as if I were already his client. At the end of our conversation (during which he laid out his fee structure very clearly) he merely said “good luck with the search, and let me know if you have more question, let me know if you’d like me to work with you.”
Be sure you are comfortable with how responsive they are to you. You must have access to your lawyer.
3) Pay them a deposit once they actually start working. Your lawyer is not your real estate broker. Unless they feel like it, they won’t be giving you advice every step of the way through negotiation. That being said, if you can’t ask them simple questions via email before you go to contracts (the official time to bring in lawyers) they are probably not the lawyer for you (you first-time buyer, you). But our lawyer only officially became so at contract signing. We only ever paid him a small deposit when we went to sign contracts. The rest of the money was due at closing.
It goes without saying that a recommendation for a lawyer from a friend or acquaintance is great. But many of us don’t have any of those. Do not despair. The internet is there for us all.