Adventures in choosing a Milwaukee real estate attorney

I knew the day would come when I would need to urgently find a real estate attorney in Milwaukee, but little did I know the frustrations I would realize in the process. I’m a picky person.  My girlfriend and I stumbled upon some land in Mequon which was ideal for us.  This particular parcel of land was unique because it was physically part of a subdivision but legally separate from the subdivision and therefore also separate from the subdivision’s HOA. Being a staunch anti-HOA advocate, this land was desirable because it allowed us the benefits of a well-maintained subdivision without being subject to their often ridiculous rules. If I want to hang my clothes out to dry on a clothesline in the front yard, then I will god-dammit!

I opted to forego a buyer’s side agent.  I find that going in unrepresented puts me in a better negotiating position. I knew the first step is to draft an offer, and I’m familiar with the Wisconsin Offer to Purchase Vacant Land form.  There were two particular facets of the offer that needed to be discussed with the attorney:

1. Part of this land is a floodplain, and I wanted to ensure that the buildable area is indeed buildable.

2. I wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t be subject to any rules and regulations of an HOA.

Thus, I endeavored to find an attorney that would help me close on this land and have an understanding of these two particulars. I used the following methods to compile a list of attorneys to contact:

1. I Googled “milwaukee real estate attorney” and “mequon real estate attorney”.

2. I used Avvo.com and searched for “milwaukee real estate attorney”.

3. I used the Wisconsin Bar Associaton’s attorney referral service. This service proved useless, as it always returned 0 results no matter what I searched.

Criteria

I desired the following in an attorney:

  • Billing on a flat fee basis or an hourly rate with a good faith estimate the total amount of work to cost between $1,000-$1,500
  • Experience in specifically writing residential land purchase offers
  • Experience with HOA law
  • Positive ratings and reviews
  • Enough youth and vigor that a slow typing speed wouldn’t drastically increase my bill
  • A public profile on either their own or their firm’s website

Every attorney I spoke with spent time with me on the phone to understand the unique aspects of this particular land and walked me through the process of getting to closing.

Attorney #1

He spent time with me on the phone understanding the HOA and floodplain issue and made insightful recommendations. Told me I should visit the Ozaukee County Register of Deeds and retrieve the documents related to the land, to ensure that the language in the documents filed with the county matched the language in the documents provided to me by the Listing Agent. He mentioned other environmental factors I should consider. I could tell from his voice that he was older, and he seemed to stumble over his words a lot (umm, errr, well…). He explained his fee structure: $240/hour, with a $750 retainer. I asked if he’d be willing to handle this for a $1,000 flat fee and his response was: “Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t want to short myself if we hit a snag along the way that caused more effort to go into this.” Fair enough. A couple days later, I decided that he was the winner. I called him to get started, and he asked to set up a meeting and to collect the $750 retainer. I explained that I was out of town (as I live in Chicago), and that I wanted to get started the same day, because I wanted to have the offer in the listing agent’s hand within a couple of days. I offered to pay the $750 retainer immediately via credit card, PayPal, or an overnight check, and I requested to forego the in-person meeting in the interest of time. He refused. He said that he would only accept a check, since it has to be deposited into a special “trust account”, and that he likes to meet new clients face to face to get started, and that if I wanted to get started before I was able to do that, I should find someone else. Disappointed, I hung up and decided to find someone else.

The Sinker: Inflexibility with payment options.

Attorney #2

We exchanged phone calls throughout the day, and from his voice mails, he sounded young and energetic — just the kind of person I like to employ. I Googled him one more time before getting on the phone with him, and that’s when I discovered his checkered past. His license to practice law had been previously suspended by the State of Wisconsin for a period of time because he failed to appear in court as a witness for a trial where he had accepted a $50 payment to appear, in addition to some other issues. His Avvo.com page mentioned the disciplinary action, as did Google’s search results, and one independent website as well.

We continued to play phone tag, and I should’ve had the stones to call him back and tell him that I decided not to go with him for these reasons and allow him to defend himself, but I was weak and chose to just not return his call

The Sinker: Had a shady past

Attorney #3

He was with a firm in Grafton and was highly rated on Avvo. Like Attorney #1, he spent time on the phone with me and even examined the existing HOA documents to give me a free preliminary opinion. Everything about him was solid, except that he was too casual when discussing fees. When I inquired, his response was:

“It’s usually between $1,500 and $2,500. If it’s more it’s more, if it’s less it’s less.”

It was that second sentence that bothered me. It struck me as callous and insensitive to the individual client’s finances and desire for reasonable and predictable fees. Additionally, the wide range and the lack of a specification of an hourly rate bothered me.

The Sinker: Flippant attitude towards legal fees.

Attorney #4

She was actually referred by a different attorney who when contacted, told me she doesn’t practice residential real estate law. She was a young, energetic attorney who flooded me with information about HOAs, the 500 year flood and its legal impact, pricing strategies on the offer, and even warned me that I may have trouble re-selling this land because at 10 acres, it falls into a special class of land that mortgage companies restrict who can buy. She mentioned several times a “real estate seminar” she had recently attended where she learned a lot. When I inquired as to how many residential real estate offers she had handled, she said: “Well I just graduated law school in December, but I’ve bought and sold 4 houses of my own, and I just took that real estate seminar.” So essentially, zero. Despite her lack of experience, I admired her can-do spirit and her enthusiasm and for broaching topics that no other attorney had. I liked her, so I inquired about her fees. She said she approximated her fees to be around $5,000. Whoa, $5000 for a residential land deal? When everyone else had quoted between $1,000 and $2,500? Because I liked her I mentioned that this seemed rather high, and gave her the range of other attorneys. She combatted with: “Oh, well if you just want me to get you to close, then it would be less, but I thought you also wanted me to help dissolve the HOA and get your building plans approved.” Fair enough. But then what she said next sank her: “I estimate spending at least 3-5 hours on determining the right offer price, based on comparables (comps), talking to other real estate agents, and getting as much data as possible about the land.”  What?  Three to five hours?  My girlfriend and I had pulled the comps, and the records from the county in about 20 minutes, and determined our offer price in under 60 minutes. Spending three to five hours just on pricing strategy for a $300K-listed parcel of land seemed like overkill.

Sinker: Overkill

Attorney #5

Feeling defeated and ready to draft the offer on my own, I made one last attempt to find an attorney. I asked a few people I know in town for referrals. Normally I’m against the idea of referrals, because I logically figure: What are the chances that the attorney best suited for me will be someone in my network, rather than someone I would find by searching and casting a wide net? In any case, my future father-in-law, a well respected Mequon business owner, referred me to someone at a downtown Milwaukee firm. I looked her up on the firm’s website, found that she specialized in residential real estate law, and called. She spoke fast, which indicated she’ll also work fast. She seemed young and enthusiastic. She told me she does about 50 residential real estate deals/year, and has five on her desk she’s working on now. She quoted $260/hour, and estimated the fees to be around $750. She didn’t mention a retainer. Said to email her all the documents and info I have and that she’d have an offer by the next morning. Wow, that’s fast! Her reasonable fees, her obvious experience in residential land deals, and her enthusiasm, led me to choose HER.

The Winner!

Attorney #6

There shouldn’t be an attorney #6, but one attorney for whom I had left a voicemail called me back after I had chosen Attorney #5. I explained that I had already settled upon an advocate, and he inquired as to whom. I gladly shared with him her name and her firm’s name. His response: “Oh, well we’d definitely be cheaper than that firm.” I said that I found their fees to be reasonable at $260/hr and about $750 total. He countered saying they would do it for $150/hour. He was young and aggressively wanted my business, which I find admirable in any business person. I told him that I may call him in the future, since I’m always looking to build my network of attorneys, and he said “Well, I can’t win ’em all…”. His tone showed a lack respect for other attorneys, and I found one particular comment insulting. He was having trouble hearing me on the phone.  Just as I was about to explain that I live in a high rise where the signal is often weak, he said “I don’t know if you’re covering the microphone or what, but…”  Seriously dude? I was operating a cell phone while you were still in the womb. He is, however, highly rated on avvo.com for Milwaukee real estate attorneys.

Conclusion

Aziz Ansari has a hilarious bit about society taking reviews too seriously. I was guilty of that when choosing an attorney. In the end, I chose one referred to me by family who had ZERO reviews online. The ones that did have reviews, turned out to be duds for one reason or another, and who knows — the reviews may have been fabricated. I know in the software world, I’ve asked my favorite customers to write reviews. I would never go to the one customer that had an unpleasant experience with me and ask them to write a review, just so there’s a balanced perspective on my performance. I did, however, want an attorney that offered fair and reasonable pricing for a relatively simple land deal. Attorney 4 was inserting too much complexity, Attorney 3 was too casual, Attorney 2 was risky, and Attorney 1 was too inflexible.

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