By Frank Rolfe
There is a right way and a wrong way to build a billboard. Unfortunately, the outdoor billboard cost for not building it the right way can be crushing – from $10,000 to move the sign to total loss of your investment if property damage leads to expensive litigation. Building a billboard the correct way is essential to a successful outdoor billboard business.
The first step in building billboards is to gather all of the relevant information regarding billboard placement. You need to know the front and side setback regulations (both city and state), the exact dimensions of the structure (from the blueprints), and distance that the light fixtures stick out from the catwalks – everything that will determine sign placement.
The next step is to map out exactly where the billboard column should go. When the driller gets there to drill the billboard foundation, the only question he will ask you is where the center of the column will go. You need to map out, well ahead of time and without any pressure, where that center should exactly be. One of the best methods is to buy some wooden stakes and a hammer, and map out where all the corners of the sign will be. This will help you to visualize all of the setbacks and their relation to the real sign.
Once you have figured out exactly where the center of the column should go, give yourself a break and increase the front and side setback by an extra foot or two. I learned this from experience, since you never really know 100% where the property lines are. If there is ever a dispute on the property boundary, you will have to hire a surveyor to find the exact property line, and it may be a foot or so different than where you assumed it is. Even if the property owner tells you with great authority exactly where their property begins, don’t count on it. I once had a land owner show me where the easements and underground pipes on his property were, and then I dug down and hit an 18” water main. The cost to move a billboard is extremely high – around $10,000 or so. However, nobody will ever notice a 2’ additional setback. It’s a simple case of risk vs. reward.
Before you start building the sign make sure that you have removed any obstruction to the sign that it is within your power to do. If you have permission from the neighbor to trim his tree, then trim it before the sign goes in. It always works best to do your trimming and removing before the sign calls a lot of attention to what you are doing. You never know what impact the actual sign may have on the agreeable neighbor – they may change their mind when they see the huge size of the sign they will be staring out forever.
Now that you have a mastery of the sign’s location, it’s time to get ready for the steel to arrive and the construction to begin. Prior to the arrival of the heavy equipment and some huge pieces of steel, it is important to obtain complete permission and cooperation from the landowner (and tenant) for the dislocation that will occur at his property on the day of construction. You should also make that you have all of the necessary permits and that none have expired. Remember that in some cities, you must commence construction within so many days of the permit issuance, or it terminates. You cannot take the risk of building a sign that has no legal permit. You should also scout out all of the access issues – how will the big trucks get in? Hopefully, your sign erector has already walked the site with you.
Once the sign erector and foundation driller show up, you should never leave the job site. There are many problems that can come up during construction, and you need to be there to help make the choices on how to remedy them. The first potential risk is the possibility of hitting water or rock when drilling the foundation. While the driller should have a solution ready in the event that either should occur, you will have to give on-the-spot approval for the additional cost to fix the problem. Other reasons to stay on-site the entire time is to help resolve any problems with the property owner or neighbors (noise issues, etc.), and to make sure that the exact location you marked for the center of the pole is utilized.
Once the driller is at work, he may get lazy and not drill quite as deep as the plans recommend. This compromises the safety of the sign, as well as throwing off your height limit. Make sure that the hole is the correct depth. Even a 6” difference can be a huge problem. Watch him measure the depth, and make sure that he does not cheat.
Once the pole is in the hole, it is time to choose the “V” – the angles of the sign faces in relation to the traffic. This is something you never want to leave up to the installer. It’s not their sign, they will not be saddled with renting the ad space, so they get lazy and don’t do nearly as good as job as you can do yourself. The correct way to choose the “V” angles is from the road it is seen from. It sounds awkward, but you have to normally spot the angles from the middle of the road or highway. I normally use a cell phone to do this as the sign installer cannot hear you from 100 yards away.
When the pole is in the hole and aligned, it is time for the concrete truck. This is the final step that requires your presence. With the concrete, your focus is to make sure that they do not over-fill the hole, or make a big mess on the property. The concrete should stop about 2” from ground level, so that you can put dirt and grass back over the hole. And the biggest mess you can make on the property is a bunch of concrete dumped on the property. Often, just your presence makes the concrete guy more careful.
Once the concrete has been poured, you no longer have to be on-site through the end of the construction process. However, you still have some additional duties to build a sign properly. Make sure that the permit is clearly affixed to the billboard pole, so that the city inspector knows you have one and that you are following it. Also, take some sort of thank-you gift to the landowner or tenant to show your appreciation for letting you tear up their property for a few days. It makes a great first impression.
You should make a lot of money with your first billboard. So it is important that you do not waste any money on having to fix the setback, height, angle, and visibility that you could have easily prevented through informed thinking and attention to detail. Follow these directions, and your billboard should go smoothly and successfully.
About Frank Rolfe
Frank Rolfe became the one of the largest private billboard operators in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He eventually sold his billboard empire to a public company 14 years later. Rolfe is sharing his expertise to anyone interested in getting involved with outdoor billboards. He is the author of the book, “Big Bucks from Big Signs”, which contains everything you need to know in order to get started.