Bored of boards? (reprise)

This is a slightly edited copy of a blog I first wrote more than two years ago. I thought I’d re-post it because I notice that a few more local councils (including Bath & North East Somerset) have applied to the Communities Secretary for a Regulation 7 to be imposed in their areas.

This would effectively mean that estate and lettings agents would have to apply for planning permission to erect For Sale/To Let boards in their area, or face prosecution and potential fines if they didn’t. In other words, boards would disappear.

Sorry if you’ve read it before. And sorry, too, to property selling guru Sam Ashdown, whose name appeared in the original version, but whose article advocating the use of boards I couldn’t immediately find, so she’s been axed from this one!

Here goes…

When I first started working for my father’s estate agency in 1980, For Sale boards were virtually an unknown phenomenon in Bristol.

There was, I believe, a “gentlemen’s agreement” between local agents and the Council: For Sale boards would only be erected on commercial premises and properties being sold by auction.

In the days before internet browsing, hopeful buyers would register their requirements with ALL the local estate agents and, of course, they would scan the trusty Bristol Evening Post classified section every night!

One day a company started putting lurid fluorescent orange For Sale posters in clients’ windows.

HORROR all round!

Before long though, we – and most other Bristol estate agents – started using posters until, one day, an estate agency with a London base, opened an office and put up a FOR SALE BOARD! “Gentlemen’s agreement”? Sorry, this is business!

SHOCK and HORROR all round!

Then off to see that nice chap at the signboard printers to get some of our own made up.

My father was against it. He was also against me wearing Doc Marten boots to work, mind you. Looking back, he may have had a point: they probably did look a little odd under my suit.

One of the first boards we put up was at a sought-after house in a very desirable road. Within the day, a phone call. Which led to a viewing, an offer, a sale. I was an immediate convert. For Sale boards were the bees’ knees.

In hindsight …. would we have sold that house without a board? Well, yes, almost certainly. With a little more effort on our part, admittedly, and probably to someone who had already taken the trouble to register their details with us, rather than somebody who just happened to be driving by at an opportune moment.

But For Sale boards were the “in” thing. Everybody who was Anybody was getting one.

Before long estate agents started rating their performance on how many boards they could put up in their local area. Some agents put boards up in empty houses that were not even on the market, just to boost their rankings.

“I’m very sorry, sir. Did you say a board has appeared in your mother’s garden while she’s been convalescing in a nursing home? I don’t know how that’s happened, sir. Probably the wind blew it there. We’ll get it removed. At some point…”

Thankfully, planning restrictions were introduced to curb the number of boards that could be put up at each property. I remember one newly-built house that had a forest of different For Sale boards in its garden, at least half of which belonged to agents that probably had nothing to do with the property at all, but who just didn’t want to miss out on such a valuable advertising opportunity!

But  agents found ways around the rules. Back-to-back boards (ie one agent one side, a different one on the other), multiple signs per post, two boards on corner properties (one on the front, one round the side) all became – and still are – the norm.

And all Hell breaks loose if you instruct more than two agents to sell your home: every morning you’ll awake to find a different combination of which board is up and which ones are in the gutter or hidden behind your shed.

More recently, agents have been putting up boards with “For Sale” covered by an advert for the local school fete. Some agents are prepared to spend hundreds of pounds on sponsoring an event to then advertise it via adapted boards that are placed in the gardens of willing parents.

Great publicity for the school event. Even better for the estate agent as their board suddenly – albeit briefly – becomes the dominant presence in an entire area.

“Hmm, thinking of putting my house on the market; I wonder who to instruct. Ah, I remember seeing a lot of those red boards around, I’ll give that company a call”.

A word of caution though: if your school asks you put up one of these boards, you are likely to be contravening local planning law and might expect a knock on your door by an enforcement officer. Thought you might like to know.

Nowadays, our streets have become a riot of plastic colour.

But do they need to be?

Let me ask this question: if the Government suddenly banned ALL For Sale boards, would the estate agency profession wither and die?

Do buyers actually sit in their cars and drive around areas desperately seeking boards, these days? Or do they sit in their armchair or at their desk and do the legwork, without the legwork?

Many of us have a mobile phone (or a tablet, or a watch, or a child who knows what they’re doing with modern technology) with access to the internet. Find yourself in an area you like the look of, with the sort of houses you’d like to own, and you can use your phone to browse the internet and find the local estate agents you need to talk to.

Yes, it’s a bit of a faff. But it’s not much more complicated than having to ring the agent whose name is on a board … especially if it’s 4 o’clock on a Sunday and they’re shut.

A lot of estate agents would hate the idea of trying to survive without boards. They are, after all, fantastic 24/7 advertisements that are cheap to produce.

But there may be an argument to say that a lack of boards would encourage buyers to speak to and build a rapport with the local agents and, who knows, it might just help ensure that the estate agency profession remains a people industry, with local businesses offering a local service.

And imagine what your street would look like without the garish plethora of red, yellow, green, blue, orange, purple, white boards down each side? Or your Victorian country cottage without the very 21st century rectangular hoarding in the garden?

Kind of nice, don’t you think?

Please don’t get me wrong. I think boards are great. We use them as often as we can.

But I would love to know whether we really need to.