Does a For Sale Sign Help Sell a House?

For Sale signs have increased along the roads of New Canaan, Conn., in the past year as inventory has grown.

A planned ban on For Sale signs in New Canaan, Conn., hadn’t even begun before it was over.

The New Canaan Board of Realtors had publicly announced the six-month trial ban in early June, citing the dramatic shift toward online house-hunting and a desire among its members to improve the look of the pricey town. For Sale signs have multiplied noticeably in New Canaan this year as the community has struggled to attract enough buyers to whittle down its substantial supply.

“When you have as much inventory as we have, the signs make it look like there’s something wrong,” said Doug Milne, an agent with Houlihan Lawrence who specializes in the towns of New Canaan and Darien, explaining part of the thinking behind the proposed sign ban.

House sales in New Canaan were down 25 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period last year, according to data from Halstead. As of this June 30, 358 homes were listed for sale, the bulk in the $1 million to $2.5 million price range.

But the clearing away of lawn signs, which was to begin July 1, was quietly called off in mid-June after news of the plan spread nationally via the internet. In an email to members, the New Canaan board said the reversal was based on conversations with the National Association of Realtors, its parent organization.

The gist of those conversations was this: “There should be no restriction on advertising the sale of a home,” said Katie Johnson, the national association’s general counsel. Support for a sign ban was at odds with a provision in the organization’s constitution that interprets any rule prohibiting the posting of signs as an infringement on the freedom of speech of both the real estate agent and the home seller.

But the so-called right to advertise your home has long been curtailed by the governing bodies in many well-to-do communities in the New York area. Take Tokeneke, for example, an ultraexclusive section of Darien that has banned For Sale signs since, well, as long as Mr. Milne, whose career dates to 1979, can remember. The neighborhood — which has its own taxing authority, private roads and security patrols — sets many of its own rules.

“We’ve argued for years that we’re doing the homeowner a service by having a sign out, but they actively enforce this rule,” Mr. Milne said. “You might put a balloon out for an open house, but it can’t say ‘open house’ or the name of the brokerage.”

On the North Shore of Long Island, most of the incorporated villages don’t allow signs, according to Maggie Keats, a broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Many home sellers don’t want them anyway because they don’t want to be bothered by buyers driving past, or they fear a sign may tip off burglars that they’re frequently not at home. “They feel it’s a security risk,” Ms. Keats said.

Likewise, some small villages in Westchester, including Pelham and Bronxville, prohibit For Sale signs. “It’s always been that way,” said Arthur L. Scinta, an associate broker with the Pelham office of Houlihan Lawrence. “It’s part of the culture of the town — I don’t even get asked.”

Of course, any home seller can voluntarily choose not to put a sign in front of a property. But John Engel, an agent with Halstead’s office in New Canaan, said he believed all-or-nothing presents a clearer picture for buyers. “When I go to Greenwich,” which also has a sign prohibition, “I have an expectation that I have to use an app or call a Realtor to find out what’s on the market,” he said.

Despite the sign ban being quashed in New Canaan, Mr. Engel is continuing to pursue a prohibition policy in his position as chairman of New Canaan’s Town Council, which will explore an ordinance similar to the one in Greenwich. In the internet age, Mr. Engel said, it’s fair to ask, “who does the sign benefit — the homeowner, or the Realtor?”

Indeed, a 2017 Zillow survey of around 3,000 recent home buyers found that a For Sale sign played a role in the search for about half of buyers, but was the source for finding the house they ultimately purchased in only six percent of cases. But if the underlying thinking in New Canaan is that removing all the signs will somehow boost the market, Mr. Milne isn’t buying it. “I don’t think we’re fooling anybody,” he said.

While Mr. Milne acknowledged that signs don’t generate nearly as many buyer calls as they used to, they do still stimulate one particular type of sale: the one from a buyer who wasn’t even in the market.

“The sign is still the most important generator of calls from someone who happens to be driving through and just sees it,” Mr. Milne said. “It’s like an impulse buy in the supermarket. You hadn’t even thought about a Twinkie since you were 7 years old, but there it is in front of you, and you want it.”

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