Because open houses are an important part of the real estate business, it follows that open house directional signs are an important part of the real estate business. Yet, while open houses are not particularly controversial, a great deal of controversy centers around open house signs. (For purposes of this discussion open house signs refers to off-site open house directional signs.)

It may come as a surprise to many real estate agents -- especially new ones -- that many people do not like open house signs. They especially do not like forests of open house signs. The second surprise in this regard is that real estate agents do not have a God-given and/or constitutional right to place as many open house signs as they want, wherever they want.

Real estate signs do enjoy certain constitutional free-speech (albeit "commercial speech") protections. But -- just as with other forms of protected speech -- cities, counties, and other jurisdictional bodies have a right to regulate such signs. In the words of a legal memorandum from the California Association of REALTORS (CAR), "They may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of displaying signs regardless of whether it is on privately or publicly-owned property."

Throughout the country, many communities have adopted ordinances regulating open house signs. Such ordinances vary widely in their particulars. For example, my local association (Orange County [California] Association of REALTORS) maintains on its web site a section devoted to open house sign regulations in the approximately 30 communities within its service area. A brief perusal of the section suggests that no two sets of rules are exactly the same.

Some communities prohibit open house signs on public property. Others allow them on some parts of public property (e.g. tree wells), but not others (street medians). Many communities limit the time period during which such signs can be placed. (Typically, 8 AM -- 6 PM).

Quite a few communities limit the number of open house signs that can be displayed for each open house. In some areas there is a fixed limit (maybe 5 or 6); while for others it is variable (for example, "one sign per change of direction").

The enforcement of open house sign rules varies considerably from community to community. Some are hyper vigilant; others are lax. In some jurisdictions local police may enforce sign codes; in others it is the job of non-sworn code enforcement personnel. Other communities may only periodically assign enforcement responsibility to particular staff members, usually when complaints are on the rise. One thing is for sure: REALTOR associations and MLS committees have no right and no business enforcing these or any other municipal codes.

Not surprisingly, a general lack of consistent and diligent enforcement efforts often leads to widespread violations. In particular there are those scoff-law agents who don't care what the rules are. As long as they are not caught and punished, everything is OK. They will put up 10, 12, 14 signs in violation of a numerical limit. They will fly balloons, even though a local code prohibits them. They will place signs in public right of way where signs may be prohibited. Etc. etc. Regrettably, then, some other agents will follow suit, not wanting to be at a perceived competitive disadvantage.

Not only does such behavior reveal an ethically-challenged character, but also it ultimately works to the disadvantage of the entire real estate community. Here is what happens:

The open house sign ordinances of many jurisdictions are frequently the result of compromises worked out between the real estate community and local officials. First, there is community pressure to stop the proliferation of open house signs. Harsh ordinances are proposed. Then, involved REALTORS hash things out with elected officials and city staff. A compromise is reached that everyone can live with. But then, the rules are violated by those real estate agents who feel entitled to disregard them. Others follow.

After a while there is another outbreak of excessive and, often, misplaced signs. There is another groundswell of community protest. Once again, harsh ordinances are proposed. Only, this time, the real estate community is not invited to participate in discussions. Why? Because it has been demonstrated that they won't live up to their end of the bargain.

Bob Hunt is a director of the California Association of Realtors. He is the author of Real Estate the Ethical Way

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