Stand Up for Your Signs

Stringent sign ordinances and onerous fees can hamper your ability to do business. Here's what you can do.

June 1, 2010

With the traditionally busy spring selling season comes a real estate professional’s perennial dilemma: Where can I legally place my For Sale signs?

Essentially, the right to post signs is a matter of free speech. Yet living cooperatively in society requires that we, as real estate professionals, must balance our right to free speech with the public’s right to safety and aesthetic standards.

While many real estate professionals have broadened their marketing arsenal beyond traditional yard signs, the placards remain a staple of the business, helping to drive traffic to properties as they promote your business brand.

Hence, it remains critical for all real estate professionals to be familiar with local laws and regulations pertaining to signage. Overly stringent requirements and onerous fees or fines can impede your ability to work effectively.

In Chicago, where my business is based, the prevailing rule is simple: I am allowed to post signs at the properties I’m listing. Yet the areas in which I’m not allowed to place signs is not always as clear.

For example, I can’t place signs between the sidewalk and the curb, which would be considered “blocking the public way” and would violate the city’s sign ordinance. Every year real estate professionals pay fines and lose signs for violating this rule.

Strange Rules, Stiff Penalties

Here’s a sampling of some hard-to-comply with rules in other markets:

  • Throughout Colorado, For Sale signs require a name, office, and phone number on the back so that violators can be easily contacted. In the town of Breckenridge, signs must be burgundy and cannot be placed in the historic district. Sign penalties in Steamboat are $500 per day and a summons to court.
  • In the city of Waukegan, Ill., north of Chicago, homes for sale must also post signs in their windows indicating the property’s zoning classification.
  • In Charlotte, N.C., penalties for sign ordinance violations begin at $100 per sign. But after 5 violations, that fee jumps to $500 per sign, and after 10 violations it increases to $1,000 per sign.
  • In Elburn, Ill., signs are allowed for a maximum of 20 consecutive days on a given property, and each property is allowed four periods of signage per calendar year.

Creating Change

Even with the safety and aesthetic restrictions I must contend with in Chicago, I consider myself fortunate to live in a city where the sign ordinance generally doesn’t hamper my ability to do business. For that I thank the government affairs staff at the Chicago Association of REALTORS®, which has a long history of working productively with municipal rule-makers on this issue.

If you think your local laws are too restrictive and want to seek change, the best place to start is with your local REALTOR® association’s government affairs staff, who can work with your municipality to make sure sign ordinances and other regulations are fair for you and your clients. It’s likely that the government affairs staff knows the rules, decision makers, and history to add context to your concerns.

But first document your issue. Take photos that illustrate the burdens created by your sign ordinance—if signs are allowed only on private property, show the difficulties posed by condominium buildings that are surrounded by public property.

Then, decide whether fighting city hall is your best bet. If an onerous law negatively affects a wide swath of practitioners, it may be worth the scuffle. But if easing the restriction would block the right-of-way or otherwise endanger public safety, government affairs staff is unlikely to embrace it.

Consider becoming more involved in your local association’s government affairs committee to encourage sign ordinances and other legislation that benefit your clients, your business, and your neighbors. Working together, we can create better places to work and live.

Genie Birch

Genie Birch, ABR®,  GRI, CIPS®, is the president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS® and a broker associate with Koenig & Strey GMAC Real Estate.