Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 23

Noticing Poles

Part of being a successful billboard investor is simply keeping your eyes open and being observant. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to discuss the concept of recognizing abandoned billboards and how to translate that into action steps. There can be big money in finding these opportunities but you have to know what to look for.

Episode 23: Noticing Poles Transcript

I've made a lot of money over the years by putting signs back where they should be from noticing poles that have no signs on them. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're going to be talking about noticing poles, noticing opportunities to put billboards back where they really need to be.

Let's first start off with the classic that you see when you're driving around, often outside of the city, going down that interstate highway or that state highway, maybe just a major rural road. I see these telephone poles right there in a line, nothing attached to them, just a bunch of telephone poles. That used to be a billboard. That's how you build billboards with telephone poles. You put a bunch of poles in a line, everything from two poles to as many as ten. Then, you nail stringers to those 2x4's basically, and nail plywood on top of that. Then you stretch your advertising vinyl around it. That's the basics of how they're built.

However, on signs that are abandoned what typically happens is the face falls off. Maybe a big windstorm blows through and blows it off through lack of maintenance. Maybe the last owner took the sign face off for whatever reason and just didn't put a new one on. Whenever you see a series of poles like that, that should trigger your thought there might be an opportunity there. Maybe you can go in and bring those poles back to life. You'll have to go to the person who owns that piece of land and say, "Hey, I notice there used to be a billboard on the property. Give me the story of that. What's going on there?" And quite possibly there's an opening in that story for you to take over ownership of those poles or utilizing those poles to put an ad back on there. But you have to watch for those poles. Most of the things you'll see outside of the city boundary, they'll always end up being wooden poles.

But then let's move into the city. So instead of wooden poles in the city, you'll see metal poles. These are in the forms of I beams. So just like the telephone poles, they'll be these vertical struts of I beams, but typically they still have those stringers on them, those horizontal pieces, because those don't rot and fall off when you have something made of metal. Those are bolted or welded on. So it'll look like a scaffolding kind of sort of. When you see that again, it screams there may be an opportunity here to put a sign back on that. Now in the city, there may be another consideration which is going to be was that originally a billboard sign or what's called a premise sign, a sign that advertises a product on the property, you know a brake shop, restaurant, or something like that. You can't put a billboard on something that didn't have a permit for a billboard originally so make sure that the framework you're looking at, that old abandoned framework, has the opportunity to be a billboard. But if it does, talk to the property owner again and say, "Give me the story of how that structure, that old rusted thing, ended up on your property," because there may be the opportunity there to put a sign back on to make pretty good money from that.

You also may find those not stuck in the ground. You may see that framework on the top of a roof, for example. Roof masts were pretty popular back in the day. 1950s a lot of sign companies built roof mounts. It's a whole lot cheaper and easier to put a sign on the top of a building than have to stick that sign way up in the air on poles so they would consequently do that. Whenever you're looking at those poles, those frameworks, note not just the ones on the road sticking in the ground, but also the ones maybe coming out of a roof. Also, notice those things on the sides of buildings, those frames. You may see those little rectangular frames attached to the masonry walls. Those used to have a sign in them at one time, so basically now all you have to do is see if you can go ahead and get a sign back on them again. A lot of urban areas those may be in the form of what's called 8 sheet advertisements, roughly about 5 x 10 feet in size, but you'll find them in all different sizes based on the age and where that city is. So once again whenever you see that popular arrangement, then that could be an opportunity.

Now, finding old abandoned signs isn't all just about poles and frameworks though. You can also find the same opportunity in signs that have even the faces in them, but yet they're abandoned. So watch when you see a billboard face. Look for the ones that are old and discolored with age. Maybe they've had wind damage and are just flopping in the breeze. Maybe there's an old phone number on it but that phone number is completely faded off, or maybe even part of the numbers are missing. Those are again telltale signs that sign needs some TLC, that it's abandoned, it's an orphan, and someone needs to adopt that sign and bring it back to life again. Even though there may be a face on that sign, even though there might be an ad on that sign, it doesn't necessarily mean it's not been abandoned.

I once bought a billboard and on that billboard there was an ad for a live band. That band was like 30 years earlier. It was called Earl White's Review Orchestra. Apparently they were popular in Dallas back in the day, playing concerts like on the tops of ballrooms and old hotels for service men, but that thing hadn't seen the light of day in a million years. In fact, that wasn't even the ad that was supposed to be on it. The one face had fallen off from abandonment and exposed an old ad face that had been on there decades earlier. Anyone who wasn't paying attention wouldn't realize that sign had been abandoned literally for 20, 30, or 40 years. But again, there's opportunity anytime you see a sign that's been abandoned, whether it's stripped off and doesn't have an ad face on it and just a pile of poles, or a pile of poles and stringers. Or if it has that sign face on there but it's clearly not had an ad on it in the longest time, those again are all opportunities.

A final opportunity you'll see sometimes in the big city particularly is a pole with nothing else on it, a single monopole structure missing the top portion. Those poles can have all kinds of colorful stories to them. Why is there nothing on the top? Sometimes, the sign company when they abandoned the sign they took the top off. Sometimes, the top is sitting on the ground next to it. For whatever reason they had a dispute with the property owner and never finished it. Then sometimes there's a top on that pole, but again it's just a frame of metal. Don't be thinking that monopole signs aren't also possible to be abandoned. I've bought many abandoned monopole signs over the years and you wouldn't imagine that to be possible. You're going to say gosh, the steel alone, the scrap is worth at least $10,000. Well that may well be true, but typically the sign became abandoned because there was a dispute with the property owner. Since they didn't get along with the property owner they couldn't go in there and take the sign out, so they just walked off and left it. So don't be thinking that you only are going to find opportunities in old wooden poles and old steel I beam poles. You'll also still find them in monopoles.

Now clearly a monopole sign to be abandoned, there had to be a really big problem. Sometimes those problems change over time. Maybe the property, the new owner is easy to get along with. Maybe there was a big blockage and that blockage is not there anymore. Often, the old sign company when they abandoned it they never looked back, they never went out and looked at it again. Maybe whatever caused the problem has now been eradicated, so now there is still an opportunity. 

Now any discussion of bringing old signs back to life also has to include full knowledge of the laws. When you're looking at bringing a sign back to life, you can't do anything illegal. Make sure you understand what the sign laws are. Do your best to meet them. Sometimes those signs have active permits on them still in force, the sign is just not being utilized. Those are the easiest. Other times, there's a permit but you can reactivate it if you take necessary steps and get that permit brought back to life. There are other cases where it's kind of all just a big gray mass. You don't know whether it is legal or isn't legal. Then you'll have to choose between do I ask permission or forgiveness. I can't answer that for you. I know I've had many signs in my career where I put the sign back up, no one ever mentioned anything to me at all on it so I guess I did the right thing in waiting for forgiveness rather than permission. But there may be other cases where you say no, I don't like the risk based on the laws of this city or this state, I'm going to go ahead and ask permission on the front end.

I've had amazing cases where I've asked permission and I've gotten it. I remember one sign I looked at once, there was really legally no way I could ever take possession of the sign and use it, but the state highway department said, "You know what, we hate the way that sign sits there. It's so ugly. We're never going to get it removed. We'll go ahead and bend over backwards to go ahead and grant you the permit for that." So sometimes when you ask permission, great things can happen. Then other times, you're smarter off just avoiding the topic all together and waiting to see what happens after you bring it back to life.

Just always remember that there's lots of opportunity to those who are very observant. So just be watching for those opportunities, watching for abandoned things that maybe somehow you can cobble together and bring back to life as an income producing sign. If you don't ask, if you don't take the effort, nothing good can ever come of it. So take the effort, be observant, watch for these situations, go the extra mile, contact the property owner, get the story. If nothing else, you may hear a really interesting story and make a new friend. But a best case scenario, you'll get a new way to have a nice income stream possibly for life. This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.