Jane: You have seen three houses, obviously with either an agent or with reference only to a For Sale By Owner (FSBO.) At this point, if you used a good agent that you picked out or just went to the listing agent, you should have received the NJ Consumer Information Statement (CIS.) The statement will have told you about the legal forms of real estate agency in our state. They are legal because each offers something of value to the general public. These categories were set up only about a dozen years ago and only after careful consideration. The considering was done by a state government division and is not just the evil whim of the Realtor community. I suggest you read the statement and discuss it with the agent(s) you have met, if any. You will be able to find out exactly what they are about by being informed and asking probing questions. Buyer's agents are not always the best advice you will be able to obtain.
Before I answer your very honest question about when to get an attorney involved, I'd like to make one further comment. Most consumers are inexperienced in the real estate game because, on average, a house sells only once every seven years. Thatâ€™s not enough exposure to really get to be "practiced," now is it? That's why the real estate industry continues to do business. We do enough business to get the experience needed.
You will be making the biggest purchase of your life and one that may be the biggest investment (certainly one of the largest single investment entities) you will ever have. That should sound awfully important to you. It still does to me and I bought my first home in 1960.
Unfortunately, except for new construction, you are going to find a used house. While we like to call them resales, they are, in fact, just as used as a used car and will have as many quirks. Their owners (but not usually the realtor who is helping them sell) can be quite cutthroat, looking for the maximum return. You need expert advice on the condition of the property (A very good home inspector) and the value compared to other like properties. (That's where your Realtor comes in.) There was a posting just yesterday about a person who ended up facing a $30,000 bill because they did not have a good idea of the risks involved with a specific purchase. It ain't amateur night, thatâ€™s for sure. Get the help you need to do the job right. Be sure that you are one of the seven wise virgins, not one of the foolish ones.
Now, after all that blather, let's answer you question about lawyers and when you should involve them. First, all lawyers are not created equal. A good family-matters attorney may have little experience in real estate. Get a specialist. Second, Attorneys often delegate a lot of the work to their paralegal and/or to the title company that they hire (and you pay for, on way or another.) Let's face it; they are not making the kind of money to put a lot of billable hours into your deal. However, having said that, a good lawyer is also highly experienced in the ins and outs of the sales contract and any further negotiations. That experience can be very valuable in getting a good deal for you.
Now, I've explained how important your team has to be. Would the Yankees start the baseball season by recruiting on opening day? Of course not. So, my advice is to start now to find the people that you want to work with.
Finally, in NJ we have a unique procedure, not found in any other state. For the first three days after signing an Agreement of Sale, (a contract) your attorney can reject and renegotiate the contract to obtain a fairer and better deal for you. You cannot reject the contract yourself! (Except our office uses a contract form that allows our clients to do so but that is our own approach and is not the standard one in NJ.) So, if you have already gotten your attorney on board your team, the first use of him/her will be the day that you received a fully signed contract of sale. You can use any form of contract to get the seller's initial agreement and then your attorney will make sure that it contains all the right terms and conditions to keep you as safe as you can be.
Best of Luck.