A real estate agent or broker can write a land contract to protect your interests. Naturally, a real estate attorney would be even better. If you hire a real estate attorney, tell the attorney to write the contract in plain English so that an average person can read and understand it easily. You would like the Seller to be able to read the contract and make a decision without feeling the need to hire an attorney. Seller attorneys have a knack for killing a sale.
Don’t get locked in with a fill-in-the-blank contract. If something is important to you, I don’t care how ridiculous it may seem, put it in writing. I have stipulated in writing that if a particular tree died, prior to closing, I didn’t want to buy the property! I was buying the property for that tree. As long as the Seller and Buyer agree, you have a deal; but you must specify in the written contract the terms that you want to agree on.
The main items you want in the contract are what I call “contingencies.” These contingencies ensure that if I can’t get the money or the building permit to build this home (or whatever I want to build), I do not want to purchase the property and my earnest money will be refunded. A real estate attorney will be helpful in writing the contract to ensure that your contingencies are enforceable.
Anytime you purchase real estate, I recommend you hire an attorney to look out for your interests. Never rely on the bank or the seller’s attorney look out for you, the buyer. Your attorney is going to read over all the many papers you’ve got to sign at closing, many of which you likely do not want to read and probably would not even fully understand. Most people simply glance at these papers and sign them. The safest bet, though, is to have your attorney read these papers and advise you before the closing occurs.
I had a friend that developed a subdivision. It stipulated in the loan documents that if the lender foreclosed on the property, the lender could collect 15% for attorney fees. My friend assumed that meant actual attorney fees. He did not have an attorney to advise him about the lender’s contingency clause. In short, the bank foreclosed on the property and the actual attorney fees were around $15,000.00. However, 15% of the loan amount was over $150,000.00! The bank demanded and got the $150,000.00. A good real estate attorney would have noticed something like this and advised my friend because of that contingency clause to negotiate it out of the agreement. This can be easy to do up front – impossible, after the fact.
“A note on choosing your attorney.” If you’re going to have a doctor operate on your brain, you don’t want to hire a foot doctor. The same is true with attorneys. Attorneys tend to specialize. You don’t want just any attorney handling your real estate transactions. I’m not saying you need to go to the biggest and most expensive firm in your area to find a “good” real estate attorney, however it’s worth your while to find a reputable real estate attorney who will notice little details that could be a potential problem. Some out-of-state banks may want you to hire a local attorney to issue a written opinion as to the validity of their loan documents in your state. You want more than an “opinion letter.” You want the attorney to read those little things in fine print and advise you of any potential problems. The $150,000.00 fee I mentioned was “legal” and would have passed an opinion letter, but what my friend needed, and what you and I need, is to have such a clause removed from the loan agreement. A reputable real estate attorney will be able to do this and other safeguards to preserve your best interests.
Even if you have the best attorneys in the country checking the title to your property, spend the additional money and purchase an “owner’s title policy.” This is very cheap and something I consider a must. The attorneys are only human and they can make a mistake when they’re checking the title to the property. There can also be title issues the attorney would not be unaware of, such as fraud. The lender will always acquire a title policy to cover their loan but this policy does not cover you and your equity. That’s why you want an “owner’s title policy.” Also, have the policy insure the boundary lines of your current survey. If you don’t do this, you could have a problem with a boundary line that is not covered under the basic title policy.
I remember a builder in Atlanta who bought some land and built a subdivision. After selling many of the homes, the real owner showed up from Florida wanting to know what all of those houses were doing on his property. The seller that sold the land to the builder had forged all the documents and signatures and was not the actual owner. Only those banks and those owners that had title insurance were protected. Over the years I have seen many horror stories like this, so remember to get the title insurance!
Just for your information, if you currently own property but you do not have title insurance, you can still get it. Instead of hiring an attorney, look in the yellow pages and call a title insurance company direct. This will probably be cheaper than going through an attorney.