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What does a sign really cost?

Sign buying can be a new experience for any business owner.  Unless you’ve opened multiple retail stores or moved your business location several times, most business owner’s have not encountered all of the possible pitfalls of sign buying.  As a sign company owner for almost 20 years, I’ve come across just about every possible hiccup in the sign buying process. 

Some of these issues are just nuisance issues and easy to fix.  Others are more complex and can impact your planned opening date, add to your sign buying costs and create real issues for finishing the job.

Plan, plan and plan some more

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Abraham Lincoln

Channel Letter Sign

What are the Top 5 Added Costs When Buying a Sign?


Pitfall #1.  Sign Permit Issues

Well, what can happen here?  The Sign Permit Application process varies greatly from one town or city to another.  Some Permit Applications are simple online applications that business owners can do themselves, however, most require the knowledge and experience of a qualified sign company to get done.  In almost all cases, detailed sign fabrication specs along with how the sign is being attached, hung or installed are required.  This is best provided by your sign company.

In Massachusetts and many other states, a Workman’s Compensation Affidavit is required to be provided to the city or town to ensure that the installer is insured in case of accident or incident with the sign.  Many cities require Liability Insurance from the installer or business owner for signs that hang over a side walk or public way.   Electrical permits must be pulled in conjunction with your sign permit in many cases for lighted signs.

Common issues with Sign Permitting that can add to your sign costs include:

Sign Size – too big or too small for what is allowed in the location.  Items taken into consideration are sign height, sign setback, installation location, other signs already on the premises and so on.  If you are not within the allowances, you could run into additional costs for re-design, variances or scrapping your planned location all together.

Sign Type – some cities and towns limit the types of signs in certain or all areas.  This is particularly true in areas with designated Historic or Downtown Districts.  It is important to understand the local Sign Bylaw to determine what is and is not allowed in a particular district.  Not having a good understanding in advance can lead to having to select another location, reducing your sign expectations and therefore reducing visibility, or redesigning your sign package.

Layers of Approval – in many cases, sign permits have to go through a Sign Committee or Planning Board for design approval before even being considered for the Building Permit process.  Often times these committees meet at night and require the Sign Company to be present at the meeting.  There are added costs for your sign vendor to attend the meeting and can also be added fees for completing an additional application as well as Sign Design approval fees.

Complex Rules and Bylaws – many towns and cities write such cryptic sign bylaws that even a professional sign company can’t understand what is and is not allowed.  Information about the building overall size, existing signs, setbacks, sign allowance and so on have to be understood before even starting to design a sign.  In order to best provide the correct information on your sign permit and also to design the appropriate sign, your sign vendor must preform a detailed Site Survey.  In many cases, there will be an additional fee for this as it can take time for the sign vendor to travel to your location, measure, take photos and then transfer that information in such a way that you can make a decision on your sign.

So, as you can see, it is a good idea to enlist the services of an experienced sign company to assist you with obtaining your sign permit.  Potential additional costs for completing a Sign Permit include; Site Surveys, Redesign Costs, Additional Permits/Approval fees, Variance Fees, lost time and attorney costs.

This is why it is important to begin planning your sign well ahead of your expected opening or move to a location.  Allowing 3-4 weeks for sign permit processing is ideal.  In many cases, the permit can be completed more quickly, but often times Committee schedules, over burdened building departments, issues with your design and so on can slow the process down.

Pitfall #2.  Electrical Connections

Careful planning for attachment or installation is required with electrical signs such as Lightboxes, Channel Letter signs and Lighted Freestanding Signs.  Your sign vendor again needs to survey your site to ensure that they can properly access behind the sign to bring in electrical connections.  If access is not available, this might need to be remedied by running a conduit outside the building, performing construction inside to allow access, adding blocking, etc. adding to the cost of the sign project. 

For ground mounted signs, there is a cost for the electrician to bring power from your building to the sign location.  Depending on the distance to the sign, this can be a considerable added cost.

Your electrician should work together with your sign installer to be sure that there is appropriate availability for the added service for the sign, that the electrical connection is appropriate for the type of sign you have and that they have access as well.  Also, with lighted signs, plan for the cost of the electrician.

Sign companies are often not Licensed Electricians and cannot perform the final connection of the sign. Many of our clients are surprised to find they have to pay the Electrician to connect the sign even though we make it very clear to them in the quoting process.

Pitfall #3. Sign Mounting Issues

Everything is not always as easy as it looks.  Issues and additional costs can arise at installation of your sign if things are not surveyed and carefully planned.

Wall Mounted Signs – There needs to be appropriate blocking behind a wall sign to support the sign.  With many retail buildings being refaced with foam based EIFS walls, we run into issues all the time of attaching heavy signs.  In addition the added thickness of the EIFS means that longer hardware is required to reach the finish wall for attachment or through bolting.

Other issues that can add to the cost of wall mounted signs include steel beams and difficult drilling surfaces.   In these cases, the installer may go through a number of drill bits to get through the beam.  This can be added to the cost of the installation.

For wall mount signs that are installed high up on a building, you could run into added costs for bigger lift rentals.  Many sign installers have their own trucks with reaches to about 50′.  Over that requires rental of equipment that can reach your sign location.  This can add hundreds, even thousands to your install costs depending on what is needed for equipment.  Keep in mind that installers often charge more to install a sign several stories up on a building or in an area that is difficult for them to access with their equipment.

Ground Mounted Signs – As with any project that requires digging, installing a ground mounted sign can incur additional unexpected costs due to difficult digging conditions.   For example, cutting through tar or concrete to install a sign will add to the cost of the installation due additional time and equipment required to perform this task.

Occasionally, we run into ledge or boulders that require additional equipment to cut or remove them.  Consider all of the costs involved in installing a ground mounted sign including concrete footings, digging equipment, police details for signs installed in high traffic areas and even breaking through frozen ground. 

Do not be shocked if you are presented with additional costs for unexpected situations that arise below the ground.  And as always make sure your sign vendor DigSafes the area before beginning work so that you don’t end up with unexpected issues such as broken water mains, cut electrical lines, and so on.

So for best results and less unexpected costs, a Site Survey is needed to anticipate any issues with installing your signs.  A qualified Sign Installer can plan ahead and provide solutions for any situations that may be present at the install location ahead of time, preventing delays in finishing your sign project.  It’s a worth while investment in any sign project.

Building Mounted PVC Letters

Tremonte Cut PVC Letters


Pitfall #4.  Logo Redesign and Design Costs

In some cases your logo files are not appropriate for fabricating signage.  You may only have low-resolution JPG files or an outdated logo that is not vector.  In this case, your sign vendor may charge you a Design Fee for recreating your logo in the appropriate form.  In addition, complex signs may incur Design Fees from your architect or sign provider. 

Complex Multi-Sign projects will involved a lot of design time on the part of your sign company.  Design, proofing, updating and final approvals ensure that your project goes off without a hitch, but may incur some additional costs.

You also may be required to get Engineer Stamped drawings for any sign that is load bearing. This requires detailed drawings from your sign vendor and changes as needed to get the sign installation or fabrication just right to meet the requirements for the Engineer.   It is a benefit to you to have your sign properly designed so that it looks great, lasts and is safe.

Pitfall #5.  Landlord Requirements

Surprise!  You’ve leased a property for your business and find out your landlord requires that you have a Gold Leaf or Lighted sign.  Don’t be taken by surprise.  Check out the other signs on the building you are leasing.  Are they all the same?  If so, most likely you will need to comply with your landlords sign requirements.  Ask when looking at properties what the sign requirements and allowances are.  Be clear with your sign vendor and provide them any documentation from your landlord on requirements so that they can design the appropriate sign.

Many larger leasing companies have very strict requirements for signage.  Often times in malls and larger business/industrial complexes, the sign design and installation methods have to be approved by the Leasing company before you apply for a permit.  This is added time for your sign vendor, so expect to pay additional fees for design, approvals and paperwork to complete this process.

So as you can see there are many potential added costs in purchasing a sign for your business.  As always, it is best to use an experienced sign company to help you with your planning, design and fabrication to eliminate surprises and full understand the cost of your project up front.  Some up front planning, will help you save money and a lot of aggravation in the long-run.

Count on Express Sign & Graphics to be thorough in Designing and Quoting your sign project.  Call today for a free initial consultation on your sign project.  Our Team is ready to help.  978.250.9890 or





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