Much Ado About Real Estate Signage!


Maybe you have thought about this before, but something tells me many of you have not.

After the following five-minute read, however, you’ll never be able to walk through a neighbourhood, or along a downtown Toronto street, without taking note of those pesky “Open House” signs.

They’re a problem, let’s be honest.  And I say this as a real estate agent who lists fifty properties per year, and runs open houses for just about all of them.

And as with most things, there must be a happy medium here, somewhere between recognizing the value in promoting the sale of one’s largest asset, and avoiding cluttering and choking the entire city with billboards.

In case you missed it, there was an article in the Globe & Mail last week by Shane Dingman, who pens some of the best real estate columns you’ll read in the GTA.

Have a look:

“Southern Ontario Municipalities Cracking Down On Real Estate Sign Boards”

It’s an interesting topic, and while I’m sure I’ve tackled this before in a blog over the last thirteen years, I don’t recall ever reading about this in a major Toronto newspaper.

That tells me this has now become a big enough issue that people are taking notice, and the notion is seconded by the fact that municipalities are enacting legislation to deal with signage.

From the article:

In March, Oakville, Ont., updated its bylaws to allow for more open house signs, rules that included the caveat that if a realtor puts out more than five such signs all the signs will be confiscated. In May, Hamilton updated its sign bylaw establishing a raft of new administrative penalties for different types of signs. On July 4, Mississauga’s rules were updated to allow sold and coming soon signs (the first municipality in the Greater Toronto Area to specifically allow coming soon signs).

Richmond Hill, Ont., was the last municipality out of the 25 where the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) operates that had no regulation allowing open house signs on city lands. The tacit ban did not stop realtors from infesting every corner of the city with signs of all types on weekends. A city staff report identified 100 agents and brokers breaking the rules between 2018 and 2019.

So before I go on about open houses and real estate signage, let me say this: I don’t do open houses anymore.

Open houses are important, don’t get me wrong.  I tell my sellers that having the house open to the public is a surefire way to get traffic from not only the people who aren’t in the market (ie. “passer-byers”) but also active buyers whose agents are too lazy to set up viewings and tell them, “Just go to the open house.”

Open houses are essential if you’re a seller!

But I have younger, fresher, more eager agents on my team who, um, interact better with the public, which is to say that I’m an old grouch…

Now my agents are there to sell the property, but they’re agents on my team, or hand-picked agents that I trust.

As for most other agents out there, I find they generally fall into one of two categories:

1) Agents working the open house to pick up buyers
2) Agents looking to farm the area

Both types of agents are known to absolutely litter the neighbourhood with their open house signs, and based on how many properties are for sale in peak market season, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing every street corner of the city representing a home for five or six signs.

What many of you don’t know is that some agents put up 15-20 signs for one open house.  There are a few high-profile agents who do this, and will put signs up 1-2 KM away from the property itself.  This makes it look like that agent has multiple properties for sale, and is a big-name, big-deal in the neighbourhood.

As the Globe & Mail article mentions, a few entrepreneurs out there provide a service where they will place your signs out on Saturday and Sunday, with prices around $10 per sign.  This started a few years ago, and at the time, it was a great time-saver for busy agents who felt that spending $5-8 per sign (at the time), for 5-6 signs, on Saturday and Sunday, was a great way to save a half-hour.

I remember the days of schlepping signs in my trunk, pulling over with my hazard lights on, ripping a sign out and placing it on the ground, all before the honking from cars behind me could get too loud.  I never subscribed to this sign service, but I know agents that did, and they swore by it.

Fast-forward to today, and this has become a marketing bazaar for several prominent Toronto agents.  Keep your eyes open, you’ll see!  Drive along a main street on the west side, north of St. Clair, and you’ll think that one agent has about twenty listings.

But what are the rules here?  Are there any?

Sadly, no.  There’s no limit as to how many signs an agent can display for each property; at least not in Toronto.  But as per the article above, we’ve seen that municipalities are getting wise.

So we know that some agents will put out way too many signs for their one listing, but here’s something: what if an agent put out one sign, or two signs, or twenty signs, for their non-existent listing?

That couldn’t happen, could it?

Don’t put it past some agents out there!

After all, can you tell the difference, while driving 50 KM per hour, between a sign that says “Joe Smith – 123 Main Street” versus “Joe Smith – Selling Homes Since 1987”?

What’s to stop an agent from simply taking his or her sandwich-boards out on a Saturday and Sunday (provided they’re the type with a large photo of the agent, possibly pictured looking busy on his or her cell phone), with the name displayed in large font, and putting them out at major corners?

It’s name and face recognition, and many people won’t even notice it’s not actually for an open house.

Those signs will blend in with the rest, and voila!  Free advertising for that agent!

Don’t think that this doesn’t happen.  If an agent is willing to put out twenty open house signs for one listing, even several kilometres away from the property, don’t think the same agent wouldn’t just put up sandwich boards for the hell of it too.

Now as for the timing of these boards and their display, that’s a whole other can of worms.

It’s generally accepted that open houses are from 2pm-4pm, Saturday and Sunday.  So what would be an acceptable time period for these signs to be displayed?

Take a trip back in time to 2003, with a young David Fleming, tripping over his two-tone pleather shoes and double-pleated pants, frantically setting up open house signs at 1:59pm on a Sunday, having spent too much time setting his fantasy football lineup, and those signs were probably picked up at 4:10pm, on the way home to catch the 4:25pm NFC games.

Today, agents are putting the signs out at 9am, and picking them up at 6pm.

That is, if they pick the signs up at all.

For real, folks, there are agents in the city that leave their signs out overnight!

This isn’t because they were rushing home to PVR “The Voice” either.  This is by design.  Why?  Because there don’t seem to be any rules, at least, not any enforceable rules anyways.

For you “brunchers” out there, think about when you’re lining up on the sidewalk at 10:00am to get into that really cool spot that you read about in an online newspaper I’ve never heard of, and/or seen photos of on your friend’s Instagram – aren’t you used to seeing open house signs on the corner?  At 10am?  That’s a little odd for an open house that starts at 2:00pm, wouldn’t you say?

Whether it’s setting up signs at 9:00am for a 2pm open house, or leaving the signs on the sidewalk overnight, neither are acceptable in my opinion.

Surely there must be some generally-agreed-upon timeframe, official or otherwise.

Now what about those “Coming Soon” signs?

This isn’t the same thing as the “Open House” sandwich boards, which block your Uppa Baby stroller from passing by on King Street, but they’re still signage worth discussing, nonetheless.

What’s the definition of the word “soon,” and how does that play into when these signs should be put up?

Soon: “in or after a short time.”

Okay, well that’s no help.

Because now you must define “short time.”

But can we agree that “soon” is not “three weeks?”  Yes?  No?  Maybe?

There’s a house on my street that has a “Coming Soon” sign on the lawn, and it’s been up for three weeks.

The fact that this is a “Coming Soon………………For Lease” makes the situation a bit laughable, since I have n-e-v-e-r seen a coming-soon-for-lease sign in fifteen years.  But again, this is an agent trying to assert his or her dominance in the area, who just wants signage.  Any signage!

But given that this house is being renovated, and a couple of weeks away from actually coming onto the market, is the “soon” sign a bit misleading, or disingenuous?

Or maybe the mental anguish of a “soon-not-soon” sign isn’t as bad as the physical anguish of tripping over three different open house signs while trying to change playlists on your iPod while jogging.  True story – this happened to a client of mine.  It was a full “yard sale” for those in attendance, this guy went ass-over-tea-kettle, lost his iPod, water bottle, and even a shoe.

Those signs, however, weren’t of the “Open House” variety, but rather were the giant sandwich boards that developers put out on downtown street corners for pre-construction condos, which adds a whole other element to our discussion today.

Some might argue that there is, in fact, a “lesser evil” with respect to a small sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of a single-family home in a residential area, and that of three giant signs for condo developments on the corner of King & Sherbourne, blocking pedestrians, bicyclists, and access to the TTC bus shelter.

But should one set of rules apply to everybody, be it real estate agent or developer?

Should there be one size of sandwich board allowed?  Realtors have a maximum size (I can’t recall if this is a TREB or RECO rule), but I don’t believe there’s any governing body for developers and their signage, save for City of Toronto by-laws which aren’t followed, or enforced.

Should the City of Toronto create more public sector jobs and put a few dozen enforcement agents out there to clean up this mess?

Or is this really much ado about nothing?





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