Thursday, January 2, 2014

WHY A REAL ESTATE TRANSACTION IS THE SECOND BEST BARGAIN YOU'LL EVER RECEIVE IN LEGAL SERVICES

If you read my last post on wills being the best bargain you'll ever receive in legal services, you might be wondering why I rank real estate transaction as the second best bargain - instead of perhaps the first best bargain. There are a few reasons.

First, you don't have a choice in Ontario (where I mostly practice) over using a lawyer for a real estate transaction. Other places you can use non-lawyers to close a transaction, but not in Ontario. By comparison, for wills DIY is an option (though not a very good one). 

Second, real estate transaction legal fees will often cost more than wills in absolute terms. Still not much, but more. However, strangely enough people don't seem to complain about real estate transaction legal fees. Perhaps because they are buying or selling a very expensive thing, because real estate agent commission fees will be many times greater than the lawyer's fees, or because they may be making a tidy profit off the real estate sale (if selling) or getting their dream home (if buying), and thus relatively modest legal fees don't seem to them to be a big deal. 

Third, but real estate transactions remain a great bargain in legal services. In fact, real estate lawyer fees haven't gone up in decades! We're not just talking about fees adjusted for inflation, we're talking about real dollars fees. The $1000 transaction fee in 1971 is still the $1000 transaction fee in 2013. Amazing, isn't it. Whereas other legal fees have risen significantly, for various reasons real estate transaction legal fees have not. Notwithstanding house prices have increased many times over. 

It's beyond the scope of this post to explain why these fees haven't gone up, just enjoy the fact that they haven't. And that there isn't any risk of them rising appreciably for the foreseeable future. 

But just like when shopping for a lawyer to do your will, shopping for a real estate lawyer should not generally be a cheapest is best exercise. Lots can go wrong in a real estate transaction. Quite a bit of personal care and attention is required on a lawyer's part to make sure a transaction closing goes smoothly. If you simply go with whomever is cheapest, you stand a good chance of not getting much attention from the lawyer, not because the lawyer is a "bad" lawyer, but rather because with prices that low s/he simply can't afford to give much time to clients when overheads are so high.

Even for those of you reading this post who aren't in Ontario, you should still seriously consider using a lawyer for your real estate transaction. Sure, the advent of "title insurance" has meant that a number of the inquiries lawyers used to routinely make are no longer absolutely necessary, but we all know that insurance coverage often doesn't turn out to be as good or as comprehensive as we initially had hoped it would be. Better to prevent problems in advance through a lawyer conducting diligent inquiries, rather than having to fall back on insurance to compensate you (but not fix the underlying problems) later.

With fees so low, why does any lawyer even bother anymore practicing real estate law? I'll give you perhaps a surprisingly idealistic answer to this one: because many of us believe it to be an important public service. Plus many of us enjoy the client interaction in an area of "happy law" where both buyer and seller are excited by the prospect of the life-changing potential that a real estate sale or purchase brings with it. For many clients, a real estate transaction may be the only involvement they ever have with a lawyer (should they ignore my last blog post, and not consult a lawyer for a will). Sure, the legal fees earned from real estate transactions can also help pay the bills in a law office, but people need to realize what a great bargain real estate legal services are compared to the amount of legal work involved in closing a real estate transaction. 


The purpose of post this isn't to somehow invoke your pity for the poor, overworked, underpaid real estate lawyer. Lawyers are grown up guys and gals who are old enough to make the decision to get out of real estate law if they decide the work isn't worth the earnings. Law is both a business and a profession, and needs to be practiced as such. Clients do us a great favour in trusting us with their legal work, and not the other way around. But a public who increasingly hears horror stories of astronomical legal fees often driven by apocalyptic litigation strategies (like in commercial or family court), needs to realize that there are legal bargains still out there where everyone can feel good at the end of the day that they were able to afford professional legal services at a very reasonable cost, which made their lives better. 

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