Do I need a lawyer to represent me in the sale or purchase of land?

You are not legally required to be represented by a lawyer in a transaction for the sale of land. However, there are many legal issues to deal with in the sale or purchase of land. The more valuable the land or your investment in it the more important it is to protect your investment by having legal representation to be sure your title is good and potential liabilities are accounted for. 

For instance, when you buy land, you typically first sign an agreement to buy the land. This is often called a purchase and sale contract. What you may not realize is that once you sign this contract, you have a legal right to the property and perhaps a legal obligation to complete the sale. Unless certain conditions arise, you are entitled to the property and the seller is entitled to your money. This also means that if the house burns down, or other changes occur between the time you sign the contract and the purchase is complete you may still have to pay for it, depending on the terms of the contract. If the contract for the sale of land does not deal with this issue, you could suffer a great loss. 

Assuring that the title to your new property is free and clear of liens or other encumbrances is also a critical function of the attorney who represents you as a buyer. Even if you could win a lawsuit against your seller for hiding an encumbrance against the property, it is cheaper to find out about those kinds of problems before you buy than to litigate them later. 

Issues associated with the closing are also possible concerns. At the closing, the buyer produces the money and the seller produces the deed. However, there are a variety of other items dealt with at this stage of the transaction. Such issues may include who pays taxes, who pays recording fees, and who pays outstanding liens on the property. Again, legal representation is not a legal requirement, but when you pay an attorney to represent you as a buyer you are paying for more than merely drafting the deed. 

Real estate brokers may have expertise in this area. However, it is important to realize what the agent’s obligations are. The real estate agent usually works for the seller, not the buyer. This is not always clear to a buyer, who may be under the mistaken impression that the seller’s agent, especially one who has been friendly and helpful, is actually her agent. An agent by law can only represent one party in a transaction unless he or she fully discloses dual agency to both parties and gets consent of both parties. Dual agency creates the likelihood of a conflict of interest on the part of the agent, and is therefore best avoided. Lawyers who work for the lending bank may be able to advise you on some issues, although, again, you should be aware of any conflicts of interest. The bank lawyer represents the bank, not you. If you are buying property, your interests and the bank’s interests may be similar, but there may also be subtle conflicts. The bank lawyer’s loyalty is to the bank, not to you. 

If you are involved in a transaction for the sale of property, an attorney’s assistance is not legally required, but may be quite a bargain if a problem is identified and avoided. Unless you are experienced and knowledgeable in this area, there are too many things that can go wrong when trying to save money by not hiring a lawyer.  

For more information, see: Maudru v. Humphreys, 83 W. Va. 307, 98 S.E. 259 (1919); Timberlake v. Heflin, 180 W. Va. 644, 379 S.E.2d 149 (1989); 7A Michie’s Jurisprudence Vendor and Purchaser § 24 (2009); Messer v. Runion, 210 W. Va. 102, 556 S.E.2d 69 (2001); 19 Michie’s Jurisprudence Equitable Conversion §§ 2, 5 (2009).