Local Attorneys


By Diane Saatchi

Many people do not like to hear one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 29 years of real estate...

I have some advice for you that may be hard to hear: If you are buying or selling, use a local real estate lawyer. 

It might sound like innocuous advice, but I regularly see customers dig their heels in to keep working with a lawyer who’s 100 or more miles away. I have nothing against your lawyer: She sounds great! You’ve worked with her for years! She’s brilliant, affordable, closed on your parent’s house in New Jersey, is your cousin’s wife, maybe will even not charge you. 

But she’s not here. Zoning laws are specific to a municipality. Knowing the laws and the peculiar mores of a town or village and the officials who enforce them is invaluable.  

In New York State, a real estate attorney is a very important part of the home buying or selling process. Too often those buying (or selling) second homes consider engaging an attorney they know from their primary hometown. After all, he or she is familiar and therefore to be trusted. While totally understandable, it often proves to be a really bad idea. 

Off the top of my head, here are some reasons you’d want a local lawyer: 

  1. They know all the local rules and ordinances. 
  2. They know the history of problems and issues. 
  3. The lawyer on the other side knows and trusts them. 
  4. They have a personal relationship and can pick up the phone and talk to the surveyor, inspectors and officials in Town or Village Hall. 
  5. If a variance is needed, they know how it could get done. 
  6. They’re not surprised when they see the survey and which issues are involved. 
  7. They know the title companies that are involved. 
  8. They’re familiar with the mortgage brokers and insurance agents. 
  9. Chances are they’ve been part of a closing in a subdivision or area, so they have all that information at their fingertips. 

Plus, if you run into any non-real estate legal problems — perhaps you get into a dispute with your neighbors or your out of town guest gets a DUI — even though they may not be litigators or criminal attorneys, they know who can help, and who will take their call. You won’t get any sort of special favors, but your attorney will know who to contact, and how to shepherd you through the system. 

When you purchase real estate anywhere, you have a stake in the community and as such will want to establish relationships in it. Often your real estate agent is the first “local” you will meet and will rely on for introductions. I can’t tell you how many more new homeowners ask for introductions to the owners of the top restaurants so they can get preferred treatment or for the best personal trainer than they do for local legal counsel.  

Generally, people have three objections to using a local lawyer: time, familiarity and cost. 

Admittedly, if you’re used to a huge Manhattan law firm, the pace of business in the Hamptons takes some getting used to. Many of the attorneys are sole practitioners who may not answer the phone after 5 p.m. Town Hall closes at 4 p.m. on the dot. The last pick-up for overnight delivery is 4 p.m., not 7 p.m. Things might take a while. 

But when local attorneys are involved, they and the brokers can work on each other’s contacts. There are things he might be better at and can get done faster, and some things the brokers can do much faster (and they probably know when to call his office so he’ll always pick up). It might feel slower than Manhattan, but I can guarantee it’s faster than the weeks of research it would require to get an out-of-town lawyer on the same page.  

The other reason customers are hesitant is because of the price. I always say I know it matters, particularly if you’re on a budget and you don’t want to spend extra money. But if you can afford to buy a second home, chances are you can afford to have the best representation. It’s not the place to save money. If you’re buying real estate, whether it’s $500,000 or $30 million, there’s no margin of error. If your lawyer friend in New Jersey offers to close for you for free or at a deep discount, you are likely to get what you paid for. 

And actually, a local attorney could save you money. Just by being here, he or she knows all the issues going on in town, and you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars for them to do the research like you would for someone trying to catch up from 100 miles away. Local attorneys not only know the current regulations, they know those in the pipeline and will help you to anticipate what may impact your purchase. 

Shop thoughtfully for your local representation. Ask your friends or even your hometown attorney for recommendations, and interview a few before you decide. 

© 2017 Diane Saatchi