Posted April 27, 202112:35 pm
One morning a few weeks ago, Brandon Kirsch was out to breakfast on Cleveland's near West Side with his girlfriend. She had a volleyball game afterward, and Brandon decided to walk home.
What should have been a leisurely eight-block stroll was marred, he said, by the sight of multiple signs reading variations of "We Buy Houses for Cash" — most of them printed on bright yellow or white corrugated plastic, and posted prominently on utility poles and guard rails.
"I said, ‘Well, you know what? I'm going to tear that down,’" Kirsch remembered. "And so before you know it, I look like this lunatic walking down the street, climbing over fences and guardrails to rip these things down."
Kirsch said he was offended both by the signs' messages and by their wastefulness: pieces of trash, in his view, that physically and visually clutter his neighborhood.
"I use the phrase 'strip mining' our neighborhood," he said. "They're reducing the diversity, reducing the stock of available homes. And while they're doing all of these things that negatively impact the neighborhood, they're basically trashing up the place."
The 36-year-old data analyst has mounted weekend collecting expeditions ever since, amassing dozens of signs that he's storing in his garage until he can think of something productive to do with them (One idea: A public art display to generate dialogue about the ethics of real estate investment).
Sometimes, he's not the first to make his feelings known. At an Interstate 90 off-ramp, Kirsch found one sign that had been emblazoned with a sticker reading "SCAM" where the phone number had been. He went a step further and tore the sign down.
Everywhere A Sign
The signs are not a new phenomenon, nor are they unique to Cleveland. They've been popping up in cities around the country for years — a way for real estate investors to solicit business from homeowners who lack either the financial means or the desire to undertake large maintenance projects on their houses.
But they've become an especially common sight in the era of COVID-19, as housing prices skyrocket, supply languishes and investors get more aggressive in generating new leads.
Most 'We Buy Houses' signs are illegal — not because of what they say, but because of where they’re posted. Utility poles, which are the places you see them most often, are owned by cities or public utilities. So are tree lawns and guardrails. All are off-limits to private advertisers, including political candidates who post campaign signs during election season or folks who advertise concealed carry gun classes.
But violators are seldom fined or prosecuted, meaning efforts to curb the signs have mostly been neighborhood-based and grassroots. For example, Philadelphia offers community groups 50 cents per sign to take them down and turn them in to the city.
Some investors defend the signs' use as an acceptable business practice that can benefit some people.
"A lot of times it's a situation where maybe someone is about to foreclose on their home, [or] they're in some tax trouble with their house," said Andrew Dunn of Capital Growth Group, a Cleveland-based real estate investment company that uses the signs to prospect for houses. "We can offer a solution to that person. We can buy their house in cash in a reasonable amount of time."
Dunn and his business partner, Tyler Powell, also cold-call people and knock on doors looking for people who want to sell. Only a small proportion of those efforts are fruitful, he said. For example, of about 100 signs the company posted, five people called, and only one of those calls led to a sale.
Dunn said he understands why people object to such tactics, and knows some investors are less than scrupulous in how they sell their services to vulnerable people.
But he doesn't believe the practices in and of themselves are unethical.
"We try and be very upfront with people: We're not for everyone," Dunn said. "If you have a home that's been remodeled recently and you're looking to get the full market value, we're probably not for you."
But housing advocates say homeowners facing financial hardship have plenty of options beyond cashing out on their houses and losing what could be a multigenerational asset.
"There's a whole initiative across the city called the Healthy Homes Initiative, and every single neighborhood has a point of contact," said Lynn Rodemann, a housing outreach specialist for Slavic Village Development, a nonprofit neighborhood group. "And the job of [that program] is to help folks who are in deep need to make sure that their living situations are stabilized."
(The initiative is managed through the neighborhood services division of the Cleveland community development department.)
Rodemann said the harm isn’t just to people selling their homes, but to neighbors as well.
When houses sell for low amounts, it depresses property values on all the streets nearby. When people who live on those streets apply for equity loans to pay for a new roof, for example, banks could deny them because their house isn't worth enough — "so you literally can't even afford to keep a roof over your head," Rodemann said.
There's also potential harm when investor-owned houses get flipped and sold to new and unwary buyers, Rodemann said. Some may be shoddily renovated, leaving new owners with a steady stream of repair projects.
'Do Your Due Diligence'
Then there's what happened to Shalonda Dixson.
Dixson bought a house in 2011 that had been purchased and renovated by an out-of-state investor who had used illegal signs not only to buy houses but to sell them.
"It was this big old sign that said, 'Become a homeowner for $500 down and $500 a month,'" Dixson recalled.
At the time, Dixson was a renter who dreamed of becoming a homeowner, and she dialed the number listed.
She bought the house and began making the $500 monthly payments to an LLC that acted as her mortgage lender. She said she was told those payments included property taxes, and didn't find out until 2020 that in fact she owed $12,000 in back taxes. The LLC never paid them.
Dixson believed she would lose her home to tax foreclosure until she went to Slavic Village Development for help. The organization worked with the county to put Dixson on a payment plan that has allowed her to stay.
She said she wants her story to be a cautionary tale for others caught up in the dream of home ownership.
"First of all, go and look everything up — who owns the house is public record," Dixson said. "Then, before you give them any money, you have to do your due diligence, make sure all the paperwork is correct. And even if you can't afford a lawyer, go to Legal Aid."
Rodemann said a big part of her work is persuading people to consider options other than bulk investors when selling or buying houses.
"It's no secret there are systemic issues that prevent lots of folks from being able to participate in traditional banking," Rodemann said. "But for most people, a traditional real estate model where you go to a realtor and work with a bank is probably your best bet. You would get more money by going that route, even in disinvested neighborhoods, than selling through these 'we buy houses cheap' signs."