I’ve seen quite a few ads about pre-foreclosure homes, which I guess are also known as short sales. I did some research and learned that while these houses can be good deals, you need a real estate attorney to sort through the paperwork to protect you, the prospective buyer or renter, from having the loan called or assuming months of penalties and back payments or liens.

If we find a real estate attorney to help us with this purchase, can we just walk into his or her office and ask them to help us locate pre-foreclosure homes? Or do we need to bring the information on a potential property with us? Are real estate attorneys used to working with these pre-foreclosure companies? Do real estate attorneys charge more often by the hour or by the task?

Your question relates to the role of a real estate attorney in the home buying process if you decide to go the pre-foreclosure route. We don’t know of many real estate attorneys who will go out there and find you a pre-foreclosure or short-sale property, negotiate directly with the seller of that home and then work to get the deal closed.

Most of the legwork of finding pre-foreclosure properties is done by home buyers like yourself, or by real estate agents who specialize in this area. While you might find an attorney who can work for you during the process, we think that an attorney would want to get paid on an hourly rate, regardless of whether you find a property to buy.

Remember, a real estate agent gets paid a percentage of the sales price when the deal closes. Real estate attorneys don’t generally work on a percentage basis on these types of transactions.

If you are intent on buying a pre-foreclosure home, you should seek out a good real estate agent. Some of these agents specialize in specific neighborhoods, so if you have a neighborhood in mind, you might want to see if there’s a local agent who can assist you. Other agents work with many different sellers and some even work with banks to sell their properties. This type of broker might be useful if you are searching over a wide area or are looking to buy a home now owned by a bank.

Given the reach of the Internet and the information available, you will be able to see and learn quite a bit about the inventory of homes out there. However, many home buyers can benefit from a real estate agent’s years of experience. Whichever route you take, you should do your homework and get a good understanding about where you want to live and what type of home you want to buy.

If you are able to locate a short-sale or pre-foreclosure home of interest, you may want to insist on working with a real estate attorney. In some parts of the country, real estate attorneys are used in all real estate home sales and purchases — not as closing agents but as attorneys for either the buyer or the seller. In other parts, attorneys may only be closing agents (“closing attorney”) and in these situations, the attorney doesn’t represent the seller or the buyer and may not have a fiduciary duty to either party. In those areas that do not customarily use the services of real estate attorneys, buyers use the services of their real estate agents and the closing agents or attorneys to work through closing.

Depending on where you live, real estate attorneys may charge a higher flat fee or even bill you hourly for work on a financially distressed property. These transactions always take so much more work than a regular home purchase.

If you’re going to be charged hourly, be sure to ask the attorney for an estimate of costs (even if you’re given a range) so that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

This is money well spent. When you’re buying a distressed property, there are always issues that emerge that can sink the deal, and an experienced attorney can often navigate a way to close.

Ilyce R. Glink ’s latest book is “Buy, Close, Move In! Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate lawyer. If you have questions, you can call Glink’s radio show (800-972-8255) any Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Contact Glink and Tamkin through the Web site thinkglink.com.