Real estate signs are the most prevalent tool used to advertise a property that has been listed, and their placement matters. Real estate signs include signs which advertise:

  • the property for sale, lease, or exchange; or
  • directions to the property.

Having signs removed by local authorities, or being fined for improper sign placement often costs hundreds of dollars. Worse, it looks unprofessional to clients who rely on your expertise to sell their properties.

Yet, many agents and their sellers are unaware of the rules controlling the placement of real estate signs. Don’t be one of those agents – read on for a refresher on where and how signs are to be placed.

Reasonably located signs within a CID

When representing a seller of a residential unit listed for sale in a common interest development (CID), such as a condominium project, you and the seller have the right to display real estate signs of reasonable dimension and design on:

  • the listed property; and
  • others’ property, with their consent.

Conditions, covenants and restrictions (CC&Rs) prohibiting reasonable signage are void. [Calif. Civil Code §712]

The sign displayed on the listed property, or on other private property with that owner’s consent, may contain:

  • statements indicating the property is for sale, lease or exchange;
  • directions to the property;
  • the owner’s or agent’s name; and
  • the owner’s or agent’s address and telephone number.

However, the sign and its location are not to adversely affect public safety or impede the safe flow of vehicular traffic.

Further, any local governmental ordinance which attempts to bar or unreasonably restrict the placement of a real estate sign on the listed property, or the private property of consenting owners, is unenforceable. [CC §713]

Real estate signs may be reasonably located in plain view for the public to observe. [CC §§712, 713]

For example, in a CID, the boundaries of a unit owned as the separate interest of a CID member are the walls, windows, floors and ceilings. If the CC&Rs of the CID do not state otherwise, the floors, ceilings, windows, doors, outlets, airspace and interior surface of the perimeter walls of a unit are considered the owner’s separate interest. All other portions of the walls, floors, ceilings and real estate are part of the common area maintained and managed by the homeowners’ association (HOA). [CC §1351(l)]

Thus, the seller is entitled to display a real estate sign on the interior side of the window of his condominium unit. The interior side of the window belongs to the seller and placing of the sign in the window is reasonable.

However, if you or the seller seek to display the sign on the exterior wall or ground area surrounding their unit, permission from the HOA is needed. Exterior walls and the ground area are part of the common area, owned by all the owners of units in the CID or the HOA. [CC §712]

Reasonable restrictions

When a government agency prohibits the display of all real estate signs, for example, to stop perceived white-flight from a racially integrated city, the ban is considered an unconstitutional interference with real estate sales, called a restraint on alienation. This prohibition of displaying real estate signs is a violation of the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, since the ordinance prohibits the free flow of truthful commercial information. [Linmark Associates, Inc. v. Township of Willing­boro (1977) 431 US 85]

Further, government agencies may not prohibit the placement of real estate signs on private property, be it the listed property or private property owned by others who consent to a directional sign being placed on their property. However, government agencies may determine the location, shape and dimensions of real estate signs to ensure the signs do not affect public safety, including traffic safety. [CC §713]

Government agencies restrict the display of real estate signs on private property through ordinances, nuisance laws or building requirements. Restrictions may vary between residential and industrial zones, and between cities. Copies of real estate sign ordinances controlling their use on private property are available through the local planning departments.

Additionally, HOAs cannot prohibit owners of units in a CID from displaying real estate signs within their separately owned land areas if the signs comply with state law and local ordinances. [CC §712]

A copy of an HOA’s governing documents and CC&Rs controlling the dimensions and design of real estate signs are available from the HOA.

Signs on right-of-ways and alongside public highways

The display or placement of a real estate sign on a private or public road may be limited or regulated by local government agencies. [CC §713]

Further, a directional sign advertising real estate for sale, lease or exchange that is located on property other than the property advertised for sale and visible from a highway which is subject to the federal Highway Beautification Act requires a special permit from the California Director of Transportation. [Calif. Business and Professions Code §§5200 et seq.]

Placing signs off-site

Placing a directional sign, such as an “Open House” sign, on a neighbor’s property without first obtaining the neighbor’s permission is a misdemeanor public nuisance. Addressing a property owner’s complaint about a public nuisance is the responsibility of local government authorities. [Calif. Penal Code §§556.1, 556.3]

Further, if you or a seller places any type of real estate or directional sign on public prop­erty, such as a sidewalk or curbside, without permission, the placement is also a misdemeanor public nuisance. [Pen C §556]

Cities and counties often refuse to grant or severely limit the authorization to place real estate signs on public property, such as street corners. These refusals are usually backed by strict enforcement of the penalties allowed by the California Penal Code. [Pen C §556]

When government agencies do allow real estate signs, it usually involves a special permit and payment of use fees. Even then, these approvals are typically restricted to the sale of parcels in a subdivider’s development.

Knowing these limitations prevents the loss of signs, exposure to fines and a disgruntled client. If you’re unsure about sign placement, seek information from HOAs and local authorities before placing your signs. In this case, knowledge is your reputation and money saved.