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Computer Counselor - January 2001

Prime Sites for Real Estate Law Practitioners Are Available Now

The Internet offers directories, form banks, databases, and government sites free to users

By Carole Levitt

Real estate law touches almost all other areas of law. Fortunately for lawyers, the Internet is just as expansive and varied as real estate law. Whether an attorney is drafting a commercial lease, writing an environmental impact statement, suing a contractor in a construction defect case, evicting a tenant, or buying a home, the Internet is replete with useful sites.

If an attorney has a client who needs to have a commercial lease drafted, a visit to Findlaw Tech Deals (at http://techdeals.biz.findlaw
) can be a big help. Visitors can view and download—for free—lease agreements culled from SEC filings. The 29-page industrial multitenant net lease between The Irvine Company and E-Machines, to cite one example, is at the site. LexisOne.com also provides lease forms for free. If the free lease agreements are not helpful, LexisOne.com sells individual forms for $10 that can be viewed before purchase. Users can also buy collections of forms that are state-specific or topic-specific.

Attorneys needing to advise real estate developers about the conditions of the market may examine the Survey of Real Estate Trends, a Web site updated twice a year. The FDIC questions 256 senior examiners and asset managers at federal bank and thrift regulatory agencies about conditions in the real estate market. The survey that results from this canvassing covers five real estate markets: single family, multifamily, industrial, office, and retail. The list of surveys can be found at http://www.fdic.gov/bank/analytical/survey.

Because real estate developments often involve environmental issues (consider the news coverage of the Playa Vista development or the aborted development of the Belmont Learning Center), the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site (www.epa.gov/) is one with which every real estate attorney needs to be thoroughly familiar. Links to much environmental law, current environmental legislation in Congress, current regulations, and proposed Title 40 rules are listed on the site’s main page. Users also can browse the site by EPA topics, which include—to cite one example—indoor air quality and the sick building syndrome (www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidest.html). The site also features links to the national priorities list.

Attorneys who are representing clients dealing in specific types of real estate developments can take advantage of trade association Web sites. In the case of shopping centers, the International Council of Shopping Centers (www.icsc.org/) offers a useful database. Part of the site is for members only, but some information is provided to nonmembers. Visitors can run free queries in the limited edition of the Directory of Major Malls database (at http://www.icsc.org/dmm/dmm.html), search fields to find malls by location, gross leasable area, household income, area population, and design of the mall. Members can run queries using 100 fields. An attorney whose client develops subdivisions will find many of the necessary subdivision forms by clicking on Forms at the California Department of Real Estate’s site (www.dre.cahwnet.gov/). At this site, forms that range from Bond for Completion of Common Facilities (which can be filled out interactively) to various surety bond forms (which must be printed) are available.

An abundance of sites concentrate on more narrow real estate topics. To find a particular site, lawyers can first access a directory site that lists real estate law topics, subtopics, and their links to hundreds of other real estate sites. At a good directory site, each site listed is typically selected by an attorney or law librarian who has found it credible and up-to-date. The Legal Information Institute site, found at the Cornell Law School site, is a good starting place among directory sites. This site’s Law About…Property, Natural Resources, and the Environment listing (http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/topic2.html#property and http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/topic2.html#environment) provides a general overview of the topics and links to federal primary material relating to each.

The Cornell site is so well-known that a tour through one of its subject areas is sometimes called a Cornell overview. Those who need more can go to Lexis’s law school site, which offers free Web lectures in 18 categories, with property being one category (visit http://lsprod.mtcibs.com/weblec/property/index.html). The property lecture series covers fair housing, landlord and tenant law, condo law, water rights, land use, and the takings clause. Each lecture has a corresponding list of links to the best Web sites in each category. For example, a user can read about zoning law in general and then follow the link to Professor Daniel R. Mandelker’s site, which lists the zoning ordinances—available for free—of every single California city and county. The user can also find a link to model zoning ordinances.

Another notable directory site is the Virtual Chase. From the Virtual Chase Legal Research Guide, users can continue to real estate law (which may be visited at http://www.virtualchase.com/resources/
). Virtual Chase also offers users an annotated list of the top real estate sites and links to federal rules and regulations, a directory of federal real estate-related sites (HUD, the EPA, and Fannie Mae, for example), and a list of trade organizations.

Attorneys also may want real estate information not only for clients but also for themselves. The Web offers considerable information to the prospective homeowner, for example. The Environmental Defense Fund’s Scorecard Web site at www.scorecard.org/ offers information about the environmental quality of U.S. communities, including their water supply, Superfund sites, and other hazards (such as a house’s proximity to animal waste from factory farms). To investigate an area, users need to know its zip code. Some of the site’s information is based on statistics that are several years old, so if you have doubts you may query the seller and the realtor or pursue further investigation. Once you are satisfied that the home you are interested in is not next door to a Superfund site, you can check to see if it is on top of the San Andreas Fault. Use the California Environmental Resources Evaluation Systems’ CERES Web site (www.ceres.ca.gov/) to view the official map of seismic hazards.

When evaluating a home, it is helpful to find its assessed value, its most recent sale price, and prices of comparable homes in the area. To find the assessed value of property, use the Property Assessments Online site at http://www.people.virginia.edu/~dev-pros/Realestate.html. The site links to county assessors across the country. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office has not placed its records for free on the Internet. However, if a house in Los Angeles County has been bought or sold since 1983, the sales price and date of sale may be listed at Yahoo Real Estate, which also includes sales data from 2,500 counties in 50 states. Visit http://realestate.yahoo.com/realestate, click on Home Values, choose Home Valuation, and enter the address. If these two sites do not uncover the information for you for free, turn to Lexis, Westlaw, or other for-fee databases with property records to find the assessed value.

To find comparable values, Yahoo Real Estate offers comparable home sales from its home values page. A report of comparable values can be tailored to find the value of homes within a half mile, one mile, or five miles of the target address. The report can also be limited to a specific price range, a specific year, or all years back to 1996. Yahoo also lists homes for sale in the area.

Due diligence should also include some investigation of the real estate salesperson or broker. Check license status and disciplinary records at www.dre.cahwnet.gov/licstats.htm. Search by name, license number, or corporation name. The results may help you avoid dealing with an unlicensed agent.

The practice of real estate law is quite diverse, but almost any of a real estate attorney’s information needs can be met by the equally diverse host of real estate Web sites. A nice plus: They are often free.

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