Certainly in a transaction as important and expensive as the sale of a home, you are smart to have at least one experienced professional -- agent, attorney or otherwise -- advising you. But do you need an attorney to buy or sell a home? The answer depends on where the home is, on the nature of the transaction, and on whom you ask.
Many states require an attorney to participate in the closing, especially in the eastern and southern United States. Elsewhere, the closing may be performed by an attorney, an escrow agent, or other non-lawyer. You should first check your local laws.
Second, even where an attorney is not required by law, it may be to your benefit to consult one. MLSs or other real estate organizations produce form purchase and sale documents that target an "average" transaction. In most states, an agent can assist you in completing a lawyer-created form, but the agent cannot revise the form, as this may constitute "legal advice." You certainly can negotiate the deal documents to your benefit with the assistance of a lawyer. Also, transactions outside the "norm" -- perhaps involving water rights, easements, or unusual condominium restrictions -- would benefit from the help of a knowledgeable real estate lawyer. If you are buying or selling without an agent, an attorney can be invaluable. In many areas, attorneys will work with FSBO sellers or buyers for a reasonable flat fee of a few hundred dollars.
Different sources will give you different advice on whether you need a lawyer. Your agent may or may not advise you to retain one. Most lawyers, as you imagine, advise you to hire them -- but not all, as this letter from the Department of Justice indicates.
If you want to hire a lawyer, or just talk to one about the possibility, see Finding an Attorney.
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