Legal advice is like your car's seat belt - you never know when you start out whether you'll need it or not. Your transaction is rolling along smoothly when, suddenly, you have a legal accident.

You want to buy or sell your home - not get into a lawsuit. You hadn't planned a visit to "Su City," but here you are. What went wrong? Did you buckle up for safety?Never forget that the real estate purchase agreement you sign is intended to be a legally binding contract. If you have any questions about the legality of your contract, add an attorney to your team.

No one else on your real estate team should advise you regarding the legality of your contract. Part of the job of your agent, broker and accountant is for them to tell you when they think your situation requires bringing an attorney in on the play.

Whether or not you need an attorney for your transaction depends upon the situation itself and how comfortable you feel about it.

For instance, attorneys rarely participate in transactions that simply involve filling in the blanks on a standard real estate purchase agreement that has been reviewed and approved by the Bar Association or Board of Realtors. If, however, you feel more comfortable having your attorney review the contract, your peace of mind is certainly worth a couple of hours billing for legal time.

An attorney is advisable when you get into situations not covered by a standard, preprinted contract. Complex issues like tax-deferred exchanges, partnership agreements and rent control should be handled by an attorney.

If you do need an attorney, interview several before making your selection. Real estate law, like medicine, is highly specialized. The attorney who handled your neighbor's divorce or who does legal work for your company isn't the one for your real estate team. Real estate agents or brokers arethe best attorney referral sources because they work with real estate attorneys in their transactions.

Real estate attorneys are much more provincial than accountants. Accountants deal primarily with state and federal tax codes. Real estate law not only varies from state to state, it also changes within areas of the same state. Rent control laws and condominium conversion statutes, for instance, are normally established by local city or county governing agencies.

Be sure the attorney you select is a full-time lawyer licensed by the appropriate bar association to practice law in your state. The attorney should have experience with real estate problems like yours. If your case may have to go to trial, find out if the attorney has courtroom experience - many don't do courtroom work.

Attorneys' fees vary widely. But the attorney's track record of success and experience is as important to consider as the hourly fee.

A good attorney will explain your options without legal doubletalk and give you a risk assessment of your options. For example, the attorney may say one course of action gives you a 90 percent chance of winning while the other course of action has only a 60 percent chance of success. Good attorneys make your decisions easier.

If the attorney's only option is a lawsuit, find another attorney. You're in the clutches of a deal-breaking attorney who just wants you to pay a big legal fee.

Plan your legal situation instead of reacting to it. An hour or two of preventive legal consultation with your attorney is far better than going to trial later because you tried to save a legal fee. If you have any doubts about your contract's legality, make the contract contingent upon the review and approval of your attorney.

Attorneys are just as human as we are. They aren't always correct. You can be right and your attorney wrong. Don't follow your attorney's advice blindly. If you don't understand or agree with the advice, question it.