Q: My friend and I, both single professionals, are looking into sharing a condominium. It seems that most of them are quite structured, with pre-set prices, mortgage rates, closing costs, etc. Just how important is it to have a lawyer on our side? In what ways can one help the most? Can a lawyer help us work out an arrangement for when we move out of the condominium?
A: Whenever I discuss the need for legal services, it always sounds like a self-serving statement. However, I believe strongly in the concept of preventive law.
You do not need a lawyer. It certainly is possible to purchase the condominium by yourself. Usually, as you have indicated, the condominium sales office will be happy to guide you through the entire process, to make sure that you will ultimately be able to purchase that condominium unit. I am assuming that you are considering buying a new or converted condominium from a developer, rather than from another unit owner on a resale.
However, you make one very large assumption, namely that everything is quite structured. I do not agree with your basic assumption.
Buying a condominium--or any property for that matter--involves negotiation between the buyer and the seller. Nothing is structured; nothing is carved in stone. Unfortunately, because people do not often have advocates on their side, there is little, if any, negotiation involved in too many real estate transactions.
Consider negotiating the basic price of the unit. For example, in today's buyer's market, you may want to offer the seller attractive terms--such as a quick closing--so that the seller will be willing to reduce the price somewhat.
You should shop around for mortgages. There is a little competition (not much) in the marketplace, and you should be able to understand the various types of mortgages that are currently available. For example, you are better off with a fixed-price mortgage at 16 percent for 30 years or a renegotiable-rate mortgage at 13 percent? Your professional counselors should be able to give you some concrete advice on these issues.
Closing costs are also not "structured." There is a lot of competition, and you will find that closing costs vary from attorney to attorney and from title company to title company. You will also want to consider whether you should go to an attorney for settlement, or to a title company--where you will not be represented.
The lawyer plays many roles in representing a buyer (or a seller) in a real estate transaction. The lawyer gives advice and counsel, and often suggests to the client alternative sources of financing. The lawyer also makes sure that the legal documents that the clients signs are proper and in order. All too often in a real estate transaction, documents are improperly prepared or violate some local statute such as usury laws, and clients should be aware of these matters.
Finally, you raise the question as to whether the lawyer can work out an arrangement between the two of you. Herein lies the most significant role of the lawyer. How you take title may be quite significant in the future. For example, if you both take title as joint tenants, and if one of you should die suddenly, the surviving joint tenant will become the full owner of the entire property--much to the dismay and concern of the deceased's relatives and heirs.
But even in life, the two of you may decide to break up the "partnership." It is better to enter into a formal agreement before you buy the property when you are still friends than to deal with the situation later when you may not be on speaking terms. Your partnership agreement should cover such matters as rights of first refusal, buy-out provisions, payment of mortgage and taxes, allocation of tax benefits, plus other real estate-related matters.
Many people ask the lawyer whether he or she will save the client money. It is my view that the lawyer's role is not necessarily to save the client money, but rather to insure that the client's best interests are properly represented, and that the client does not "get taken" in this real estate market.