Billboards: A Highly Visible but Overlooked Real Estate Niche
InsightInvesting Strategies

Billboards: A Highly Visible but Overlooked Real Estate Niche

Billboard-Investing

A profitable real estate business in billboards could be right in front of you.

Imagine being able to spot a piece of real estate that no one else realizes is full of potential, get a great deal on it, and then leverage it in a way that requires very little maintenance, upkeep, or management. It might sound like an impossibility, but you drive by dozens or more of these types of investments every day when you drive by billboards. If you understand what makes this industry unique, you are well on your way to investing with a huge advantage in the space.

“Most people do not realize that the billboard industry is one of the few industries wholly controlled by the U.S. government,” said Frank Rolfe, co-owner at CREUniversity and formerly the largest private owner of billboards in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “Historically, the government would regulate an industry in its infancy, then deregulate it. With billboards, however, they found they could not deregulate it because there was so much opposition through Scenic America and other groups,” he said.

“Basically, billboards exist under a federal mandate that only allows them in certain zones and spaces. If you know where those zones and spaces are and you know how to identify places where a billboard would be attractive and can gain control of that property, then you have a huge advantage in a niche of real estate most people know nothing about.”

Rolfe, who specializes in niche areas of real estate, said billboard-based real estate investments come with special “protections” for the investment that few other types of development or real estate investing have. “If you have a billboard location, basically having a billboard in that location excludes anyone else from building another billboard within so many feet of that location. That exclusion never goes away, and that is where the value is: in the lease and the permit that let you have that sign and no one else can have on in that location.”

3 Steps to Profitable Billboard Investing

Billboard investments are relatively straightforward, once you know the rules. Rolfe said the starting point for any billboard property investment is to learn your local and state laws. Then, the serious due diligence starts:

1. Break out the maps
Use an “old-fashioned” paper map to identify major highways in your area. Once you have a list, request a traffic-count map from your state. While the process will vary by state, going to the state department of transportation (DOT) website and requesting a “traffic-count map” is a good start, although you may have to speak with several people before reaching the right office.

2. Combine your traffic-count information with ordinance information
If your target location is within the city limits, start with those ordinances. If it is outside the city, review county and state ordinances. High-traffic areas with the right ordinances for building a billboard will be your bullseye.

3. Identify potential properties
Determine what type of sign will work best for your potential property, how much it will cost to erect that sign, and what type of income you are likely to generate from renting out that ad space. Then, get to work identifying properties and making offers!

“A lot of people think you can randomly go out there and start building billboards anywhere you want,” Rolfe said. “You can’t. There is a very limited supply of options.”


Important Insights on Billboard Technology

In the past 20 years, billboard advertising technology has changed dramatically. Rolfe recalled the first “tri-vision” billboards, which consisted of a series of rotating, triangular strips that enabled billboard owners to post three ads during the same leasing period.

“When that was new, the whole sales pitch was it would allow you to have three ads on your sign, and the first few years people would pay the same for a third as for a whole because the idea was that every time the thing flipped, people would take note,” Rolfe said. However, over time, the novelty wore off and most people, including Rolfe, stopped using them because they did not generate enough revenue to make the increased maintenance of managing three signs and the mechanical side of things worth it.

“When they brought in LED boards, a similar thing happened,” Rolfe recalled. If an investor owns multiple signs in multiple locations, LED signs allow advertisers to change the locations of their advertisements and prevent “ad blindness.” While the hypothesis sounds strong, Rolfe noted most cities do not like these installations and advertisers do not report the returns they hoped from using LED-based strategies.


Billboard Business Facts:

  • There are few or no college classes on billboard real estate and business. The Harvard Business School’s book on marketing gives billboards one paragraph.
  • Most of the value in billboard real estate lies in the lease and the permit for the sign. If you are not crazy about a location and do not want to manage the advertising, you can sell the lease and permit and garner most of the value.
  • Billboard properties are very low management. Most investors rent the ad space for six- or 12-month periods, make sure the sign is in good shape, and, as Rolfe described it, “walk away for about a year.”
  • Billboard real estate has a very low capital entry point. “You can build a wooden telephone-pole billboard for less than $4,000 and purchase old, abandoned signs for next to nothing,” Rolfe said.