Once you get the hang of spotting abandoned billboards, you can’t stop seeing them everywhere. I recently passed two of them within a hundred yards on the same highway. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to discuss what these opportunities are, how they work, and why there seem to be so many laying around in some markets.
Episode 34: Opportunity All Around And Nobody Notices Transcript
The other day I was driving down the highway and first came upon a bunch of telephone poles, with those horizontal wooden stringers on it but there was no advertising face on the sign. It clearly had been gone for a long time. The stringers had all turned gray with age. And I didn't go that much farther down the road, and yet I came upon another billboard. This one was vertical in orientation. The ad on this thing was so old, it had faded so bad, you couldn't even make out what it was. Clearly, no sign was being utilized. And that's a terrible shame. There they were, there's an advertiser out there that needs them, there's a property owner that wants to get rent for them, and yet there's nothing going on. It's those type of opportunities that drive me nuts, and people drive by them all the time and they don't see them. This is Frank Rolfe for the Billboard Mastery Podcast.
We're talking about those opportunities that you find all across America - interstate highways, state highways, farm to market roads, busy secondary streets - where signs built at some point in the past have now been abandoned, and are sitting there waiting for someone to bring them back to life. So why would those signs be abandoned? Who would build a billboard and then just walk off and leave it? Well, there are many reasons for it. First one might be that at some point, the property owner and the billboard company could not reach an agreement on the land rent. So as a result in disgust the billboard company just walked off and abandoned it. So there's one option.
Another one is that the sign was built for a single user, maybe for Holiday Inn, they had a lot of signs of their own for many, many decades. And then over time, that Holiday Inn may have shut. Suddenly, there's nothing to put on the sign. That sign just sits there, year over year, gathering dust totally abandoned, often with the land rent actually being paid and the permit fees. It's just not being used because the business that built it originally, the business that owns it, no longer exists. You see that a lot across America with Stuckey's, which was a very large chain. If you drove down the highways back in the 60s, you'd remember Stuckey's. I certainly do. Their number one product was called the pecan roll. People always stopped at Stuckey's as they went on trips. They knew they could go in, you could find toys in there, candy, all kinds of stuff. Sadly, as America matured, Stuckey's was no longer part of the program. But they had a lot of billboards, and many of those still stand.
Another reason that billboards can go totally empty is the guy that built the sign to begin with dies. I bought signs like that and taken old signs over like that, where the person who built them, and they might have built them back in the 50s and the 60s, and the 70s, they just up and died. One large batch of signs I bought once was built by a guy who was killed in a car wreck. They were inherited by somebody else, they didn't know what to do with them, they just let them all go abandoned. It doesn't mean however, when you see an abandoned sign that there's necessarily a problem with it. Some people assume when they just see those poles and those stringers and no ad face in it, that there's a reason for that, that they can't rent the ad space, for example. That's not the truth. Every time I've seen one of those old abandoned signs and brought it back to life there was certainly nothing wrong with the sign. Good visibility, good location, just something had caused it along the way to be forgotten.
So how do you go about trying to take those signs and bring them back to life? Well, the first thing you have to do is you have to try and find the back story of the sign. Go to the property owner and say, "I couldn't help but notice that you have these telephone poles and these old stringers and I assume that's a billboard, right?" "Yeah, that's a billboard." "Well, what happened there? Tell me the story." They'll then tell you the story. They may say, "Well, this guy named Tom came to me and he built that thing back in 1968. And he paid me rent every year, and then one year he stopped paying me and I never could get him to return my call. And since it's on my land, I just assumed that it's mine and I've never heard from him again." Then you say to the landowner, "Well, I'm interested in the sign. Is there any way I could possibly buy the structure from you? Could I possibly restart paying you lot rent? I'd like to bring it back to life." From the property owners perspective, it's sitting there gathering dust, it's an eyesore. So what you want to do is you're asking to trade them literally nothing for something, and most people will always take that trade.
Now, once you've established an agreement with the property owner, and you must really begin there, the next question is where do you stand in light of permits? Some of the signs had permits when they were built and they don't have to have any new permit. In other states and markets, you have to have annual permits that are renewed. If it doesn't have the necessary permits, you have to really think about what you're doing here. It's possible you could try and bring it back into service. But without a permit is not really legal. However, there's a lot of illegal signs all across America that people have done just such a thing with. There may also be some loopholes perhaps in the permitting process that would allow you to bring it back to life. So you need to get a handle on the permitting.
Next, you need to get a handle on the structure itself. Is the structure truly usable? Is it safe? Is it going to fall down? Does it meet any minimum OSHA requirements of safety equipment, etc? You need to do kind of a quick analysis of the sign. If it's a large steel sign, you could hire someone, a sign fabricator, for example, who could go out and look at the sign, climb up the sign and tell you the condition that it's in. Next, you have to figure out a budget. Now that you know the sign, the price to bring it back into service, now let's run the numbers. Let's look at the revenue, what you think you can rent the sign for, costs such as the ground rent, installation of the ad, lighting if there's lights on it, repair, maintenance, tax, insurance, what does that look like? And if you say, "Well, that's actually pretty darn attractive," and everything else lines up for you - land rent, permit, structure - then you could go forward and try and bring the sign back to life.
Now renting the ad space is an art unto itself, but typically not that difficult. Most of these old abandoned signs are very, very simple by nature. They've got pretty much something going on with them. And all you have to do is to basically just go through the effort and the steps. There's typically always an advertiser looking for them. Normally, the abandoned signs are older signs, and they have good visibility and good locations. Now, once you rent the ad space and install the sign, then basically everything comes full circle. If anyone's going to complain about the sign, if anyone will come forward and say, "Wait a minute, that guy didn't own that sign, that one's mine." The state, county, or city says, "Wait a minute, you can't have that. Where are your permits?" that's where most of the action happens.
Now, since you don't know, in bringing these old signs back to life, what will happen when you get done, you always want to make sure you've done in a very cost effective format. You want to make sure that your worst case scenario, maybe you have to walk off yourself and now abandon the sign that you brought back to life. So don't put a lot of money in it. But if it works out well, if everything goes your way, and you get that sign up on there, there's no problems and everything works very smoothly, then you've created a really, really good source of side income. It doesn't take that many billboards to produce a very significant additional income stream, sometimes enough to replace your actual day job.
So when you're driving around and you see those old abandoned signs, don't look the other way. Acknowledge those are an opportunity. Embrace that opportunity. It might make you some real money. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.