Buying or selling a home is one of life’s most significant transactions for many, and being presented with stacks of paperwork and columns of numbers when it is time to close the deal can be daunting. Many people are not aware that–for virtually the same cost as a title agency–an attorney capable of providing legal advice about what serves their best interests can handle the closing, and if an issue arises can take any legal steps necessary to resolve it.
While many real estate transactions are completed without a hitch, running into problems is not uncommon in south Florida. “With the velocity of deals that are completed in the good times, things can get missed, such as mortgage claims against the property and other issues,” said Sam Norton, an attorney and shareholder of Norton, Hammersley, Lopez and Skokos, a Sarasota law firm concentrating in real estate, business, tax, trial practice, and dispute resolution.
Both title company agents and attorneys will do title searches and work with insurance companies to obtain policies to protect against known risks by paying the costs of defending a claim against the prop- erty if something is missed in the title search. Risks could include unpaid taxes, mortgage claims or liens on the property, easement rights given to others, and property encroachments. Title insurance policies also may outline exceptions to what the policy will cover. “A non-attorney agent will not always review the exceptions and advise whether they are good, bad or indifferent for the client,” attorney Peter Skokos said. “People generally have a use in mind when they purchase the property, and we can advise whether that property is suitable for their needs or not. Someone may be willing to go ahead with a purchase and take the risk that an issue won’t arise, but it may have an adverse effect on lenders or could limit who is willing to buy the property in the future.” Attorneys also review zoning and the voluminous governing documents for homeowners or condominium associations to ensure there are no unpleasant surprises, such as finding out a desired renovation won’t be approved or a long-time canine companion can’t reside with the family because she doesn’t meet size restrictions for pets.
Norton Hammersley attorneys have a fiduciary relationship with clients, meaning they must always work in their best interests, and they are accustomed to reviewing documents with a great degree of thoroughness, which has worked to the benefit of clients. In one case, a client was purchasing an expensive piece of waterfront property and wished to build a new residence. The property had been bought and sold many times over the years, but attorney Michael Infanti read a barely legible restriction drafted by the original property owner in 1935 requiring his approval for any residences constructed.
“This was either missed or not paid attention to through a number of closings. We had to get a declaratory action of the court to eliminate it,” Infanti said. “This year, we are celebrating our 30 year anniversary as a firm, and in that time, we have never had a title claim. That means we have had to be very thorough in doing what we do, and that takes a certain level of competency to be able to say that.”
In another instance, attorney Alexandra Glauser discovered an easement granting a neighbor permission to use a dock. “The neighbor across the street had a recorded easement to use the dock forever, and we had to get that extinguished before closing,” Glauser said. “We read every word and reviewed every number. The other day I felt I was able to pay for myself by catching a mistake on a closing document prepared by another company that would have cost our client $1,000.”
Using an attorney, particularly one with a full-service law firm, can also help prospective homeowners understand whether they need to address tax, estate and other considerations. “We are proficient at knowing the best way for someone to take title such as creating a trust or other entity,” Infanti said. “We also work with a lot of real estate agents to help clients by preparing contract amendments and help them through that process, and if an issue comes up prior to closing, we can help with that too.”
Whether someone invests in real estate on a large scale, is a first time buyer or makes a commercial transaction, they get the same level of attention. “We take each transaction very personally and get to know each individual,” Glauser said. “I just did a closing for my mom, and I treat every client the same way I treated her.” Norton also believes that service is what distinguishes Norton Hammersley. “If we take on a client, no matter how big or small, we treat them the same,” he said. “It is service and good communication that clients really want in addition to competence, and that is what we offer.”