Consider skipping the representation and learn the legalese yourself.

By Amanda Hinnant
Updated August 04, 2004
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Selling a house
| Credit: Leo Espinosa

For most people, buying or selling a home is the most expensive transaction that they will ever conduct. This fact alone may make you want to scurry for the cover of a real estate lawyer. But Marcia Stewart, legal editor at Nolo Press, the leading publisher of legal self-help books, says you can often handle the tasks involved in buying or selling real estate just with the help of other professionals traditionally involved in the process―a really good real estate agent or broker (who's working for you, not the other party), the escrow company, and possibly a mortgage broker. Many states have standard house-contract forms, which an experienced real estate agent should be familiar with.

Tip: No matter how many people are helping you out, make sure that you actually read everything you sign. Ask questions if there's something you don't understand.

What you can save: $100 to several thousand dollars.

What you risk: If the buyer or seller tries to back out of the deal on short notice, you may have to scramble to get professional legal help. And if something goes wrong after the deal has closed (say, the inner walls and ducts turn out to be caked with mold), you may need to hire a lawyer after the fact to get you out of the purchase or to negotiate a settlement.

Get a lawyer if:

  • The lawyers' fees are a drop in the bucket compared with the purchase price.
  • Attorneys are commonly involved in residential sales in your state. (Six states require an attorney for closing, and a handful of others require lawyers to be involved in some other aspect of the sale. Check with your state commission of real estate. You can find your commission at
  • You don't entirely trust the other side (or your own real estate agent).
  • You are buying or selling the house with a non-family member (in which case ownership issues tend to be more complicated).
  • The property you are buying is in probate or foreclosure.
  • You are buying a house in a development with homeowner-association rules.
  • The purchase or sale is particularly complicated (for example, the seller is helping the buyer obtain a mortgage).
  • The 106 Common Mistakes Homebuyers Make (& How to Avoid Them), by Gary W. Eldred (Wiley, $17,
  • Home Buying for Dummies, by Eric Tyson and Ray Brown (For Dummies, $22,