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Real Estate ‘For Sale’ Signs Have Legal Protections

It has finally rained in California and colorful flowers, both wild and domestic, will soon be making their appearances just about everywhere you turn. But that’s not all that will be sprouting up. We are also approaching the time of year when real estate signs — for sale, for rent, open house — seem to pop up in every neighborhood throughout this golden state.

Everyone loves the flowers; but not everyone is all that fond of the signs. In this column and next week’s I will discuss some of the laws, issues, and concerns regarding real estate signs. Today the focus is on signs placed on private property.

First of all we note that federal courts have held that the use of signs is protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. They have also ruled that local governments have the right to regulate signs both for aesthetic purposes and for safety reasons. Of particular importance are a couple of rulings that held that the government regulation of signs must be content neutral. A city may not, for example, adopt an ordinance prohibiting ‘for sale’ signs.

The California Civil Code (sections 712 & 713) specifically addresses the topic of real estate signs. The code provides that owners or their agents may display on the owner’s property, or on the property of another who gives consent, real estate signs that are (1) “reasonably located, in plain view of the public…”, (2) “of reasonable dimensions and design”, and (3) that “do not adversely affect public safety, including traffic safety…” The local city and/or county may determine the standard of reasonableness, but, in extreme cases, that standard may be reviewed.

Such signs may advertise (1) that the property is for sale or rent by the owner or by his agent, (2) directions to the property, (3) the owner or agent’s name, and (4) the owner or agent’s address and telephone number.

The code also makes clear that these ‘sign rights’ of sellers and landlords may not be more strictly limited by private entities such as a homeowner’s association (HOA). That is, if a sign is deemed to be of a reasonable size and design by a city and/or county ordinance, then the HOA may not adopt a more restrictive rule. For example, if a city ordinance states that ‘for sale’ signs may be as large as 24″ by 18″, then an HOA within that city may not have a rule that says signs cannot exceed 12″ by 9″.

One twist on the provision just mentioned is that an HOA may adopt restrictions on a particular issue if the city ordinance is silent on that issue. Suppose, for example, that the city sign ordinance simply does not address the issue of color schemes. Then it would be OK for the Homeowner Association to adopt a rule that required all ‘for sale’ signs in the development to use a certain color scheme. If the ordinance had had language saying that any color scheme is acceptable, then the HOA could not adopt such a rule.

It is important to note that the specifications above apply to signs either on the owner’s property or on the property of another person who has given consent. None of that applies to the placement of signs on a private or public right-of-way. And that is where the issue of ‘open house’ directional signs comes into play. Next week’s article is “Open House Sign Rules Are Frequently Disobeyed”


Written by Bob Hunt, a director of California Association of Realtors®. He is the author of Real Estate the Ethical Way featured on Copyright © 2015 Realty Times All Rights Reserved