When new homeowners finally seal the deal at the closing table, they may believe the legal details are all settled, but the legalities of owning property can be very complex, and a real estate attorney can protect a homeowner’s interests if problems occur after the sale.
Attorney Bill Sauerwein, founder and president of Sauerwein Simon, says a real estate attorney can protect a homeowner against future claims against the property. A problem in the chain of title, called a ‘title defect,’ is a common issue. “For example, after a transaction closes, something is discovered to have been done incorrectly,” he explains. “Maybe a deed in your chain of title was forged or invalid; maybe a contractor who worked on the property has a claim against it because he wasn’t paid. A title defect may allow people to make claims against the property that affect your ownership. Our attorneys prepare corrective documents to cure title defects, establish an appropriate chain of title and resolve adverse claims.”
Sauerwein is a firm believer in the protection offered by a title insurance policy. “Everyone ought to buy title insurance when they acquire property, because they have no other assurance that the title to that property is going to be valid. The purchase is optional, but it is often recommended by real estate agents.” Lenders may require it as a condition of the loan, he adds, but otherwise it’s up to the homeowner to purchase the policy. “It’s different from other insurance, because you only pay for it one time.” Claims against a property’s title are not always recent, he adds. “We’ve handled claims involving deeds going back to the late 1700s, by researching the county records and in some cases, tracing a deed back to the Department of the Interior.”
A real estate attorney also can assist a homeowner with an appeal of their property tax evaluation. Sauerwein says an appeal of property taxes is often successful. “Our firm has handled a number of tax appeals, and it’s very worthwhile to appeal your assessment if it’s too high. People win all the time!”
In addition to property tax disputes, property owners sometimes struggle with the government over issues of eminent domain laws—the power of government to acquire private property for other uses. Tracy Gilroy, principal of The Gilroy Law Firm, specializes in representing homeowners in eminent domain cases and says the laws affect all types of properties. “It can be commercial, industrial or residential; individual homes or entire subdivisions. We help people whose property is taken by the government, no matter what the property is and no matter the reason—it could be for a road or a private development.”
Gilroy says eminent domain law is often misunderstood by property owners who’ve been offered compensation for their homes. “I’ve had people tell me that they think the government can take their property without paying them, and that’s why they take the money when it is offered,” she says. “That is a prevalent belief, but property owners need to know that the best way to protect their rights is to take the government to court.” The first step, Gilroy adds, is determining if the government has followed ‘good faith’ rules of negotiation. “Once we believe that the government has done so, then we begin negotiate for a higher price.”