What Is Real Estate Law?

Legal considerations regarding commercial and residential property

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 12, 2023

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Real estate law concerns physical land, sometimes referred to as “real property,” and the structures and resources on that land.

We are all affected by real estate laws, though we likely don’t think about them until we actively buy or sell property. A real estate lawyer isn’t always required in a real estate transaction, but they can be helpful when you need to navigate unexpected situations.

An Overview of Real Estate Law

Real estate law is governed by state laws and generally divides into two categories:

  • Residential real estate law
  • Commercial real estate law

Both types involve mortgages and real estate contracts, which can be negotiated with the help of a lawyer.

Local government regulations, as well as homeowners association rules, may also impact a property owner’s use of their real estate. In the unfortunate circumstances of foreclosure, housing discrimination, eviction, or building defects, a lawyer can help an owner or buyer eventuate their legal options.

Common types of residential property include condos, townhouses, single-family houses, and multi-family houses. Duplexes and fourplexes are considered multi-family houses, but anything more than four units is generally deemed commercial property.

The home-buying process can vary by state, but usually, the buyer and seller will hire real estate agents to assist them with the process. Occasionally, parties may choose to, or be required to, hire a real estate attorney.

While buying and selling a home is a routine process, you may encounter situations that could cause a dispute or delay in the process. You may want to consider speaking with a lawyer to help you understand your options should any of these situations arise.

Housing Discrimination

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against prospective buyers based on specific protected characteristics, which include:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Disability

Discrimination can be overt, such as advertising that requests applicants of only one sex, religion, or race. However, more often, discrimination is subtle. For example, a seller who turns away every prospective buyer of one race could be found to be discriminating even if they aren’t explicitly asking for applicants of only specific races.

Failure to Disclose

Sellers are required to disclose any defects a home may have. They must be upfront about past or current issues with the house and any repairs. This requirement is intended to protect the seller from future lawsuits. It also informs the buyer about potential problems they may have to deal with when becoming the homeowner. Common disclosures include:

  • Liens
  • Property disputes
  • Mold
  • Lead paint
  • Leaks
  • Electrical malfunctions
  • Weather damage

It is better for a seller to over-disclose, though they may consider discussing disclosures with a lawyer. Likewise, buyers who believe they have discovered something that should have been disclosed might also want to speak with a lawyer.

Construction Defects

Construction defect claims are like failure-to-disclose cases, but they are more common with new construction.

These types of claims can range in severity from peeling paint or warped baseboards to foundation problems that make the house dangerous to live in. They can also be complicated because you may have to decide who to hold liable within a specified time.

An experienced real estate lawyer will be able to help you evaluate your claim and instruct you on the appropriate time limits in your state.

Commercial real estate is property used for a business purpose that the owner expects to make a return on. Common examples of commercial real estate include:

  • Stores;
  • Office buildings;
  • Industrial parks; and
  • Apartment buildings.

The most common legal issues in commercial real estate involve land disputes or problems with a lease. A basic commercial lease will include rent and duration terms. Still, parties generally cannot use a standard lease form for all transactions because the provisions will have to be tailored to the specific intended uses of the property.

For example, in a strip mall, a landlord’s lease with Business A may limit the services Business B can offer, which must be reflected in the lease. Zoning and land-use regulations such as easements and environmental laws can also restrict commercial real estate; follow this link for more information.

What are Mortgages?

A mortgage is an agreement between a bank and a borrower. The bank loans the borrower money to purchase real estate, and the property is collateral for the loan. The specifics of your mortgage will depend on whether it is residential or commercial.

Residential Mortgages

Residential mortgages are typically made to individuals. The debt is repaid in regular installments, usually over 30 years. However, lenders can generally repay their whole mortgage before the loan’s maturity date without incurring a penalty.

Commercial Mortgages

Commercial mortgages are made to business entities.

In the event of a default, the lender may recover from the owners; however, some loans stipulate that the lender can only recover from the property.

Mortgages for commercial real estate sometimes require regular payments for a few years with a lump sum payment of the remaining balance at the end of the payment term. Commercial borrowers might face penalties for prepayment or early repayment to protect the lender’s anticipated earnings.


In the unfortunate event that a lender cannot repay their mortgage, the mortgage lender may begin a foreclosure action to take possession of the mortgaged property. The process can vary by state.

There are methods through which a borrower can avoid or delay foreclosure after missing mortgage payments. Borrowers may negotiate repayment plans with lenders or obtain a lower interest rate.

Should I Talk to a Real Estate Lawyer?

A lawyer can help you at all stages of a real estate transition—from running title checks to writing and negotiating purchase agreements. Your lawyer can also represent you in discrimination or foreclosure cases. If you are selling your property, your lawyer can walk you through mandatory disclosures and help you get the best value for your property.

A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. They may even be able to help you avoid potential problems altogether. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

Real Estate Attorney Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some common questions homeowners or potential homeowners might want to consider when meeting with an attorney:

  1. How do I qualify for a loan?
  2. What do I do if my offer is rejected?
  3. What do I do if a seller discriminates against me?
  4. Can I sue a homebuilder for problems with my house?
  5. What do I do if I receive a notice of foreclosure?
  6. What do I need to disclose when I am selling my home?

Finding the Right Real Estate Attorney for Your Needs

It is crucial to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, search the Super Lawyers directory, using the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer with a law firm specializing in real estate law.

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