Q. This is the first time we've bought a house, and our agent says when we find the right one, she'll draw up the contract and we'll sign it right there. My father always advised I should never sign a contract until a lawyer has looked it over for me. What is your advice about this?

A. For first-time buyers, signing a purchase offer can be a shaky experience.

Your agent should give you a copy of the form usually used by his or her brokerage, the local multiple listing system or the Bar Association. Study it in leisure ahead of time, for when it comes time to fill one out, you'll be too nervous for quiet consideration.

Depending on local custom, a broker or lawyer may help you fill out a written purchase offer detailing the terms under which you propose to buy. In some areas, this can become a full-fledged sales contract needing only the seller's acceptance to be complete. Elsewhere, local custom may employ a preliminary memorandum, articles of agreement, a binder or a deposit receipt.

You should always receive an immediate duplicate of everything you sign, by the way. If it isn't offered, ask for it. You need not walk out wondering what you've just committed yourselves to.

Can you draw up the offer for yourself? Yes, and you could perform your own surgery, too. In either case, it'd be fine unless you happened to make an amateur mistake. There's no use copying someone else's contract or a model. Yours will differ in many respects according to the needs of the parties, local custom and state law. Brokers and lawyers must take courses, pass exams and gain experience before they're allowed to fill out these forms.

It's reassuring to take the document to a lawyer before you sign it. Many sales, though, are made after office hours and on weekends, and you may risk losing the right house by delay.

Instead, you can write above your signature "subject to approval in form by my attorney." This means you can go ahead and make your offer while reserving for your lawyer the right to object later to any wording or provisions that don't protect your interest. The lawyer could even disapprove of the whole contract.

Most lawyers won't give advice on price, feeling that it is out of their field of expertise. The lawyer's job is to see that the contract protects you and accomplishes your objectives.

You can safely follow local custom about who fills out an uncomplicated contract.

Q. We are getting ready to list our house for sale, and the agent says when she has the first open house, the neighbors will probably come over. Is there anything we can do to prevent this? I do not like the idea of them looking in our closets or other places.

A. Yes, your neighbors, who have always been curious about what's in your cupboards and attic, may well show up at the first open house. Your agent will probably welcome them and may even suggest inviting them. It's worth doing -- they may well have friends or relatives who have always wanted to live nearby.

The agent, of course, has an extra motive for being cordial: the hope of producing a successful sale and then being remembered when it's time to list the next house on the street.

Q. This all started when my father died. He had three apartments. It ended up being that my brother, brother-in-law and myself are owners.

My brother-in-law put in $30,000 for the remodeling of the apartments, and we owners went to the bank and got a loan for $30,000. The apartments have paid the loan off.

My papers from the bank say I "conveyed" the land to my brother-in-law. What does that mean? Did I unknowingly give my apartments away?

Since we got the loan, I have not received any papers or information for income taxes.

A. You should have had a lawyer in the first place, and that's the person to consult now. Take all the papers you have to an attorney, and discuss this until you completely understand what took place.

• Contact Edith Lank on www.askedith.com, or 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester NY 14620.

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