A sign of change in Baltimore Co. With lifting of ban, 'sold' markers may spring up in yards; Advertising or information?; Many Realtors say change is good for business, community


Now that the Baltimore County Council has lifted the ban on displaying "sold" signs, some real estate agents are eager to put the law into action, while one independent broker had a "different view" of the council's decision.

"I don't like 'sold' signs. I just think they are clutter," said Harry Blum of Fiola Blum Realty in Pikesville. "If the house is sold, take the sign down. I happen to be in the minority. That's OK, I've been in the minority on most of the things I think in the real estate business."

Blum took aim at the larger brokers. "They want as many signs as possible. They've got four times as many ways to sell that house. By putting a sold sign on it, it's just more advertising. If I was the seller, I'd tell them to take their stupid sign down."

Blum added that he encourages his agents to remove the "for sale" sign as soon as a house comes under contract. But he realizes that it's up to the seller and agent to make the decision.

"Some of the agents like them. I don't like them. But I acquiesce to the agents because that's what they want," he said.

Marc Witman, an associate broker with Long & Foster and vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said, however, the lifting of the ban can only have a positive effect on communities and the real estate business.

"I think there are two effects," he said. "One effect, from the community standpoint, is that it is going to show that houses in neighborhoods sell. People will want to live there. The other benefit is that it's going to say Long & Foster's Marc Witman has sold a house. I'm not going to deny that."

Douglas Poole, a broker for Re/Max Preferred in Hunt Valley, agreed.

"I haven't really gotten into it yet, but I'm definitely going to go out and get some [sold signs]. On a selfish basis, it's much more a benefit to me than anything else. It doesn't really benefit the seller. I don't pull the sign out once I get a contract. I pull it out the day of settlement, unless the seller tells me 'I want it out.' I want my name out there. I want to market Re/Max. So I leave it in as long as I can."

The ban was repealed earlier this month by the council as part of an overall comprehensive sign law. The law, while restricting many kinds and types of signs, now allows Realtors to choose either "sold" or "under contract" to be placed on a "for sale" sign or post. It can remain on the property for up to seven days after settlement. Baltimore repealed its ban in April. Witman, however, said he doesn't think too many Realtors will be using the "under contract" language.

"You are allowed to say that the property is 'sold' upon ratification of a contract of sale, even though it hasn't settled and there are open contingencies on that contract," Witman said. "If you want to go to jurisdictions where 'sold' signs have been legal and have been used for years and years, how many 'under contract' signs have you seen vs. how many 'sold' signs."

Because of the ban, many times buyers would inquire about a house thinking that it was still for sale, only for a Realtor to disappoint them by explaining that it was under contract. With "sold" signs, Witman says some of the confusion will be eliminated. "I think the practice is going to be when it's under contract, it is sold, and you put up a 'sold' sign," he said.

"The importance of the [for sale] sign should be noted," Witman added. "Fifty percent of all the calls that come into real estate offices come from the sign. That doesn't mean half of all sales are generated by a sign, because people generally call about houses that are not the house they [eventually] buy. But it shows how important is the concept of how people drive through neighborhoods where they aspire to live and use that as information to help them determine what is on the market, and this [the sold sign] is going to just clarify for those people -- the consumer -- what is available and what they can spend their time on."

The ban was instituted in the early 1970s when the city and county were fighting blockbusters.

"Sold" signs were being used to discourage African-American buyers from purchasing in a particular neighborhood even if the house wasn't under contract.

However, Carroll, Harford and Anne Arundel counties have allowed "sold" signs for years. Howard County, with the exception of Columbia -- permits them as well.

And to James P. O'Conor, chairman of O'Conor, Piper and Flynn, that has cost Baltimore.

"I've always felt that the surrounding counties have had a leg up on Baltimore County and previously Baltimore City at not being able to put up sold signs," O'Conor said. "Deep down, the overriding prevailing thing is that the situation is different today from what it was 25 years ago, that's for sure. Any validity there was to the argument [of banning all signs] years ago, isn't there anymore.

"I think it's time and right and good for the 'sold' sign to come back because it is a way of informing people that a house in their neighborhood was sold. I'm a believer in signs."

A true believer is Pat Hiban, an associate broker for Re/Max Advantage in Ellicott City in Howard County.

"I get a lot of business from 'sold' signs," he said. "We might have 10 deals a year that I can attribute to 'sold' signs, so it's a big profit center for me as an agent and as a business person."

Hiban also explained that in a strong buyer's market, the psychology of using "sold" signs can be invaluable.

"I think that when people see a 'sold' sign it gives them a sense of hope," he said. "Lord knows there's plenty of [for sale] signs that they see on their way to work that are there and continue to be there and don't move. They just stay there.

"In this market that we're in, they are going to see more 'for sale' signs than they ever have in history just because there are so many houses for sale. To see a 'sold' sign -- to see that one has sold -- I think gives them hope. It shows an economic upturn that someone has sold their house, especially if it has sold quickly."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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