When real estate agents have open houses in Honolulu these days, they are putting out their usual signs. But more and more agents seem to be placing signs on sidewalks or on the city property between the sidewalks and the curbs.

It is visual pollution and it also is illegal. And that’s not even getting into the fact that some of the signs could be a liability issue if a distracted walker trips over one.

Panhandlers are cited for setting up shop on public sidewalks and real estate agents are prohibited from the same thing: no private business on public property without permission.

All of the signs shown with this article are illegally placed.

“These signs are never allowed on city sidewalks or the city right of way,” says Art Challacombe, deputy director of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

illegal real estate signs

Open house signs are allowed only on private property.

But some real estate agents with whom I spoke say the signs on the sidewalk are a necessary part of doing business.

“It is not legal but the law is pretty much ignored,” says Kailua real estate agent Paula Ress. “The signs are only out on sidewalks temporarily, for the two or three hours of the open house and then they are gone.”

“It’s against the law to place signs on the sidewalk. That is a fact of life,”says Ress. “But it is a practical matter. Especially when a house is off a main street and difficult to find.”

Ress says she has seen as many as three directional signs on sidewalks and on main roads to guide viewers to a home for sale on a back street.

But if so many illegal signs are out there on sidewalks, why is there no enforcement?

Challacombe of the Department and Planning and Permitting says it’s difficult to regulate the signs because they are usually put up on weekends, and by the time the department receives a complaint and sends an inspector out to investigate the signs are gone.

To address that problem, he says the city depends on residents complaining with very specific information including the name of the real estate company on the sign on the sidewalk, its exact location and the time and date the sign was placed. And, if possible, a photograph of the sign.

real estate signs illegally placed

Challacombe says, “Photographs and locations are good to have because we can use them to cite a violator. Also, if we receive complaints that certain neighborhoods seem to be flooded with these signs, we can send an inspector out on the weekend and we will cite the violators.”

If the sign is not removed after the real estate company receives a notice of violation, the city sends a work order to the Department of Facility Maintenance, which removes the sign and bills the owner for the work.

Some of Honolulu sign companies I called who advertise sidewalk real estate signs for sale seemed unaware of the law.

Edward Suh, the owner of Signs Today on King Street, says “I believe that it is alright to have the signs if they are on the sidewalks temporarily but not permanently. But I don’t know the regulations.”

What might have initially started off in a small way with some open house signs on sidewalks has now expanded beyond sidewalks out on to to city, state and federal roadways

The open house signs appear to be  illegal on all Hawaii roadways and medial strips.  State law cites the following as unlawful: “A sign, billboard, poster, notice, bill, or word or words in writing situated outdoors and so designed that it draws the attention of and is read by persons on any federal-aid or state highway.”

real estate sign illegal median grass strip

I personally notice more real estate signs on sidewalks in my neighborhood now because there are open houses not just on Sundays but also on week days when the open houses are held mainly for brokers.

The brokers’ open houses are held on various days on different parts of town. In our neighborhood, they are usually on Wednesdays.

Leigh Prentiss, the head of the Sign Committee of the Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle says the organization has not taken an official position on the real estate signs on sidewalks because although they are illegal, they are temporary.

“We are more worried about some of the god awful plans the mayor has to put huge advertising signs on city buses and the large signs politicians put up for months and months during election season.”

But Prentiss says, “Personally, I am not fond of the idea of real estate signs on sidewalks. It is something the Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle will take up at its meeting next month.’

Real estate agent Christine O’Brien says there is a way to avoid putting open house signs on sidewalks even when additional signs are needed to guide prospective buyers to a difficult-to-find property.

O’Brien says she asks neighbors living close to the property for sale if she can put directional signs on their private property to help interested viewers find the place.

“The neighbors can be amazingly nice about allowing guiding signs on their property, “ says O’Brien. “There never should be signs on the sidewalks.”

Real estate agent Ress, who is a board member of both the Outdoor Circle and the Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle, says her position on the practicality of sidewalk signs may seem contradictory with the Outdoor Circle’s goals but she says, “I can’t imagine my clients not being happy about me putting out signs for their open houses.”

real estate signs illegal

Becker Communications, the public relations firm representing the Honolulu Board of Realtors, emailed in behalf of HBR executive director Suzanne Young.

The emailed statement says the board is aware real estate agents have been putting signs on sidewalks and on other areas where they are not supposed to be.

“HBR, together with Realtor offices across Oahu, has pledged to remind Realtors through various communication channels to be considerate of neighbors when helping to sell a home by ensuring that their signs do not block sidewalks, as signs in improper locations are considered litter,” says the statement attributed to Young.

The statement says besides calling the city, people can also call the Honolulu Board of Realtors when they see sidewalk violations.

Challacombe of the Department of Planning and Permitting says, “We ask for the cooperation of real estate companies and other businesses to obey the law and not place their signs in the public right-of-way. The sidewalks are for pedestrians and the signs can present a health and safety issue to those who want to use the sidewalks.”

About the Author