City officials have said it's nearly impossible to catch and fine the people behind illegal "We Buy Houses" signs, even though each sign is emblazoned — like a jumbo business card posted on high — with a phone number. How hard could it be?
Four hours of calls later, I'd say: hard.
On Tuesday, I dialed 59 numbers on so-called bandit signs collected by West Philadelphia resident Michael Froehlich, who offered a buck for each one ripped down and brought to his door. As for the numbers, he gave me those free.
Most of the numbers went directly to voicemail or Google Voice mailboxes. The messages requested a name, number, and address of the property I was interested in selling. Of the 16 humans I got on the phone, only four would give me their full names, and this was before I even told them I was a reporter.
" `Greg' is fine."
"I'm good, thanks."
"Just `Alex' works."
"First, what's the address of your property?"
That's an unnerving way to start a business transaction potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Those willing to walk me through the process said that if I gave them the specs of the home and an asking price, they'd come out to see the property and accept or counter.
I learned some things about how the signs get posted thanks to Adam, the man behind "Larry Buys Houses." Adam wouldn't tell me his last name, but he did correct me when I kept calling him Larry.
"I'll have a zillion angry Facebook posts if I gave you my last name," said Adam, who lives in South Philadelphia.
Adam's two-man investment team (he and Larry) hang about 50 to 100 signs every other week. The thick, corrugated plastic signs cost about a buck each to make, and crews they hire get between $1 and $2 a sign to plaster them around the city. Adam attributes some of the over-signage problem to his overzealous workers.
"They're getting paid per sign, and they're trying to make as much money as they can," he said.
Adam uses an iPhone app — SimpleCrew — designed specifically to "keep your bandit sign team accountable." After someone posts a sign, he uploads a photo and drops a pin so Adam and Larry can have a better idea of how they're saturating the city.
Most people I talked to said the signs tend to garner more angry neighbor calls than interested sellers. But even a few home sales in a given year can be a great return on their sign investment, especially given how steep competition can be at housing auctions.
"To be honest, that marketing is something you just kind of put out there and hope for," said Johnny Kimber, 27, of West Philadelphia, whom I reached via his "WE BUY HOUSES CASH!!!" sign. "It's like fishing with a pole compared to a rod. You throw it in the water and see what bites."
Kimber recently swapped posted signs for yard signs, which he puts in vacant lots or grassy medians (also illegal). I asked if he thinks he's preying on people in desperate financial situations who could potentially get more money on the open market.
"In my experience, most people in that market, they need the money faster than three or four months, or they're greedy people with inheritances or other investors," he said.
Frank Ryder, 37, of Overbrook, claims he hung up his final sign a month ago near 70th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard in West Philadelphia.
"Neighbors were yelling and screaming at me," Ryder said.
With so many "We Buy Houses" signs, people have gotten creative about how to distinguish themselves, like Ryder's: "My Daddy Buys Houses."
"I thought about my daughter and I was going to start putting her on ads, even have her do greetings," Ryder said of his 5-year-old. "It sets you apart. It kind of touches people."
But Ryder said even he thinks there's oversaturation. Getting fewer calls than in years prior, he started tearing signs down himself.
"It's creating debris and trash, and they're putting them up in areas that it's just uncalled for," he said. "And that's coming from a person that does it saying this."
None of the people I talked to reported getting caught or fined, except for Ryder. When Philadelphia police caught him putting a sign up in Overbrook Park, he was fined $50 and was on his way.
After he put a sign up in Havertown, he got a call from police there telling him to take it down or face a court appearance. "I was there in 20 minutes," he said.
Then there was "Miss D," whose magenta signs are smaller and better designed than most. When I asked about them, she seemed confused and then pleasantly surprised.
"Oh, yes, that's me. You're my first call!" she said.
Then I broke the news that I was not an interested seller.
"Well, you're my first not-real lead then," she said.
Miss D is Danielle Lawless of Francisville. She's been a Realtor for 17 years and put 10 signs up in North Philadelphia six months ago as a side business. Things have clearly been slow, but should she get any legitimate callers, she said, she plans to work with the homeowners to determine their interest in selling, or using her as a Realtor to put their home on the market.
"I don't think it's all scams," Lawless said. "I think people are offering a price. It's a free market and they have an option to accept it or not."