Several years ago was the first time I saw a cellphone tower dressed up like a gigantic Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The lifeless fronds wrapped around that steel sequoia hardly made it blend into the southern pines it dwarfed in its South Carolina neighborhood, but I thought, "Nice try."
That bit of clownish camouflage was part of the deal struck between our Columbia suburb and the tower’s owners to attempt to mollify residents who didn’t want the structure in their backyard.
Will faster networks lead to more furious arguments?
Those folks are not alone. Driven by concerns over aesthetics and safety, neighborhoods have long been fighting cell towers on their block even as their dependence on that very technology has grown.
And now there are 5G networks being rolled out, which experts say will require far more infrastructure to handle the massive leap in speed and data-carrying capacity.
So this argument isn’t going away anytime soon -- and may just be heating up. It also raises this question: Should investors buy residential property near cellphone towers?
The answer seems to have two parts: Are they safe, and do they hurt property values?
The NAR recognizes it’s an issue and presents both sides
The presence of cellphone towers is enough of an issue that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) has a section devoted to it on the trade group’s website.
There you’ll find a 2018 study by Valbridge Property Advisors that found negligible to no effect on home sale values within the quarter-mile radius "sphere of influence" of cell towers in neighborhoods in four major markets: Boston; Dallas; Phoenix; and Raleigh, N.C.
Also on the NAR website is a blog post from a group called Scientists for Wired Technology that details the woes -- also in 2018 -- of a homeowner who lost a deal and then hundreds of thousands of dollars off the subsequent listing price because of a "small cell" cell tower being built just 28 feet away from that house.
FCC says it’s all good -- American Cancer Society says maybe
That’s well inside that “sphere of influence” -- just 28 feet -- but it does raise the safety question, of course. Is it safe to live near a cell tower?
Here’s what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says: "Radio frequency (RF) emissions from antennas used for cellular … transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits.
"These safety limits were adopted by the FCC based on the recommendations of expert organizations and endorsed by agencies of the federal government responsible for health and safety. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students."
Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society only sort of agrees: "At this time, there’s no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cellphone towers causes any noticeable health effects.
"However, this does not mean that the RF waves from cellphone towers have been proven to be absolutely safe. Most expert organizations agree that more research is needed to help clarify this, especially for any possible long-term effects."
Reasons to believe some potential buyers really would care
So, while the jury may still be out on the health effects of nearby cell towers -- 5G and otherwise -- just seeing people protest their looming presence provides at least anecdotal evidence that cellphone towers are an issue to potential buyers and thus to investors.
And this isn’t really a new thing. A 2014 survey by the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy found that 94% of its respondents said cell towers and antennas in a neighborhood or on a building would impact how interested they would be in a property and how much they would pay for it.
And fully 79% of those respondents said they would not under any circumstances buy or rent a property within a few blocks of one, while 88% said they would never buy or rent a place that had a cell tower or group of antennas attached to it.
This is just one survey, and it was conducted six years ago, and the survey methods used weren’t particularly robust and don’t feel as granular as methods used in that Valbridge study -- which assessed actual sales, not online opinions -- but still, it’s interesting.
Markets and buyers change; do your research in real time
So, should an investor buy a property near a 5G tower or any other? From purely the investment standpoint, the best advice here may well be, ask around. Markets and the perceptions of the people who matter the most here -- potential homebuyers -- are in a constant state of change.
Talk to real estate agents and brokers who know the market and the property well, look at comps yourself, and include the presence of a cellphone tower -- 5G or otherwise -- as one of multiple factors to consider before committing to an offer or a purchase.
From the viewpoint of social responsibility, again, that’s for you to decide. Would you feel safe living there? If not, would you feel OK about renting the property to someone else?
Sources with general authority on the topic say there’s probably little reason to be concerned, but how much you feel that verdict is stacked in favor of industry, again, that’s for you to decide.
Meantime, maybe it’s time to mull a mobile REIT?
There's a lot of information out there. And lots of time to think about it, since 5G networks are just now getting serious traction around the U.S. and the infrastructure buildout to sustain it seems likely to continue for some time.
Heck, that might even make this a good time to consider or reconsider REITs that specialize in mobile towers.