How To Make Sure The Billboard You Are Buying Is Legal

You would be amazed at how many billboards you see advertised for sale that are illegal. Unless you know how the permitting process works, it is easy to get caught in this scam. Often it is not even a scam – the owner himself does not know that the sign is not legal. Often, illegal signs change hands several times until they are finally found out. By then, there is no chance for the unlucky owner to get any kind of return of their investment.

So what are the steps necessary to make sure that a sign is legal?


State License of Seller

In many states, the owner of a billboard must have a legal sign operator’s license. Without this license being in good standing, any sale of a billboard is rendered illegal, as is the permit on the billboard in question. Make sure that you know the laws concerning a license in the state you are buying the billboard in. And make sure, if required by the state, that it is in good standing – don’t just take the seller’s word for it. Further, in many states there is a form of transfer that has to be filed. Make sure you have a handle on that, too.

State Permit

In most states, you must have a state permit for your sign. If you are in one of those states, then you must have one. If the seller does not have one, then that’s the end of the story. Without a valid state permit, then nothing else matters.

City Permit

You normally have to have both a city and state permit for a billboard. In some cases, the city permit is all that is required – the city is designated “self-controlled” by the state and is solely responsible for billboard permits. Again, without a valid city permit, you can’t buy the billboard.

Match the Permit Applications to the Actual Sign

Check the billboard size and lighting and height on both the state and city permits, and see if they match. If not, you are in trouble. Many times, the seller altered the sign once he got his state permit. That’s not going to fly.

Match the Actual Sign to the State and City Permits

If the permits called for a 10’ x 40’ billboard with no lights, and the actual sign is 14’x 48’ with lights, then the sign is illegal. Period.

Make Sure the Sign Has Not Been Abandoned

Many times, the permits on a billboard automatically terminate if the sign has been abandoned for 180 days or longer. Check with the state and city to make sure this has not occurred.

Make Sure the Sign Was Not Filed As a Premise Sign

When you review the permits, make sure that the billboard was not applied for as a “premise” sign. A premise sign is an on-site sign for a business. It does not allow for advertising any good or service not sold on the property and, therefore, does not make for a billboard sign at all.

Make Sure There Are No Outstanding Violations

Call the city and state officials and make sure that there are no outstanding violations on the sign. It may sound like overkill, but there is no protection too great for your investment.


Despite what a seller may tell you, there is nothing legal about a sign that does not possess all of the correct permits and licenses. I have heard every possible explanation by a seller why the permits are missing or incorrect, and thousands of times have been told that everything will be O.K. Unfortunately, it never has a happy ending when your billboard is not legal.

Frank Rolfe started his billboard company off of his coffee table, immediately after graduating from college. Although he had no formal training on the industry, he learned as he went, and developed his own unique systems to accomplish things, such as renting advertising space. Frank was formerly the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas/Ft. Worth, as well as a major player in the Los Angeles market.