When to call a real estate attorney (© Image Source/Getty Images)

When questions arise on a real-estate transaction, most people call their agent or broker. But if the deal is complicated or risky, it's smart to consult with a real-estate attorney.

For typical transactions, such as the uneventful sale of a single-family home, lawyers are an unnecessary expense, says Paul Quinn, a real-estate attorney with GrayRobinson in Orlando, Fla. But residential investors, people buying homes in a short sale and homeowners facing foreclosure can benefit from the advice of a real-estate lawyer.

"Most real-estate agents are not licensed to practice law, and they don't have the training to review surveys or alert buyers to issues that could be costly to fix down the road," Quinn says.

However, just because an attorney says he practices real-estate law doesn't mean he's qualified to handle your case. When choosing an attorney, ask these questions to make sure you have the perfect legal match.

1. How long have you been practicing? Before you hire an attorney, it is helpful to determine how much real-life legal experience he or she has, says Aaron Hall, a Minneapolis-based attorney with Twin Cities Law Firm LLC.

"If you're asking for help with something simple like a purchase agreement, maybe you wouldn't mind having someone with one to three years of experience," Hall says. "But if you're dealing with a real-estate development or something complex, you probably want somebody with eight to 15 years."

Quinn says you also should ask if the attorney graduated from an accredited law school. And if the school is out of state, find out how much of the lawyer's experience is in your state. A list of American Bar Association-approved law schools can be found at the ABA's Web site.

However, it's not always necessary to find a seasoned pro with decades of legal work behind him. In fact, going with a less-experienced attorney can save you money because he would likely charge less than a senior partner, Quinn says.

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2. How many cases like mine have you handled? Not all real-estate matters are created equal. Ask if the attorney has dealt with transactions similar to yours. If he has, he will be better able to foresee potential problems and head them off, says Tim McFarlin, a real-estate attorney with McFarlin & Geurts LLP in Irvine, Calif.

Carolyn Carter, deputy director of advocacy for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says most attorneys won't reveal clients' names without the clients' consent. To get a personal referral on an attorney, Carter suggests you contact attorneys you trust in other fields and ask them who would be appropriate for a real-estate transaction or ask a friend or neighbor who's had successful legal work done on a real-estate matter.

3. How would you handle my case? It's not out of line to ask an attorney for a brief overview of what he plans to do on your behalf, Hall says. In fact, it can help you determine which attorneys are knowledgeable about real-estate law.

"If an attorney doesn't know what he's talking about, you'll get an ambiguous answer like, 'Oh, I'll take care of it, don't worry about it,'" Hall says. "(What he's saying is) ambiguous because the attorney doesn't know what he's going to do. He'll have to go research it."

Seasoned real-estate attorneys will give you a rough outline of the actions that need to be taken, such as the filing of certain documents, Hall says.

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4. How will you bill me? Knowing the fee schedule for your attorney can help to avoid unpleasant surprises later, Hall says. Most attorneys work on an hourly basis, meaning they will charge you a certain amount for every hour they spend working on your case. Standard hourly fees range from $150 to $200, he says.

For simple matters, you may be able to negotiate a price. "If you're just asking for something to be drafted, that's a great time to ask for a flat fee," Hall says. However, he adds, a case requiring negotiations with another party or spending time in court is generally billed hourly.

5. Who else will be working on my case? Some law firms hand off the initial work on cases to a junior attorney, a paralegal or someone knowledgeable about the law, but not necessarily to a licensed attorney, Quinn says. During your initial consultation, ask who will do the most work on your legal matter and make sure you're comfortable with that person before proceeding.

"A lot of times, especially with homeowners, there are going to be some questions and you're going to interface with the person working on your case," Quinn says. "Determine whether you have a rapport with that person and whether you're getting the kind of attention you want."

After asking specific questions about a real-estate attorney's background, be sure to choose the lawyer who makes you feel at ease, McFarlin says. "It can be as much about the personal side of things as anything else," he says.