The Real Deal New York

Federal judge: Nope, you can’t own the phrase “We buy houses.”

But a company owns the trademark
By Kathryn Brenzel | August 31, 2018 06:00PM

(Credit: iStock)

Two home-buying companies walked into a federal courtroom, feuding over who can legally use the simple phrase: “We buy houses.” The judge ruled — despite a federal trademark — that anyone can.

A Virginia federal judge ordered earlier this month that the marketing arm of We Buy Houses (WBH), a company that procures quick cash offers for homes, shouldn’t have sole ownership over the phrase “we buy houses.” In another order on Thursday, Judge T.S. Ellis denied WBH’s motion to reconsider the decision.

The decision concludes a lawsuit filed by a competitor company, Express Homebuyers USA, in June 2017, seeking cancellation of WBH’s trademark of the expression. Express Homebuyers cited an “onslaught” of complaints filed by WBH for its use of the trademarked phrase in various YouTube videos. Though WBH asserted that its use of the words in reference to the nature of its business was anything but generic, and therefore, a competitor’s use of it in a similar fashion constituted an infringement, the judge disagreed.

“When asked what services they provide, EHB, WBH and other competitors would naturally answer ‘we buy houses,'” Ellis wrote in an explanation of his decision. “Allowing one member of the industry to trademark the phrase ‘we buy houses’ would be the equivalent of allowing a professional football team to trademark the phrase ‘we play football’ or a fast-food chain to trademark ‘we sell burgers.'”

Attorneys for WBH didn’t return messages seeking comment

“I’m big on justice in the world and today justice has been served for Express Homebuyers and real estate investors across the United States,” Brad Chandler, CEO of Express Homebuyers, said in a statement on Thursday.

Records show that WBH first filed to trademark “We buy houses” in 2001 and has been registered since 2006. The company isn’t alone in wanting to corner the market on snappy home-buying expressions.

A cursory search of similar active federal trademarks turned up something akin to the seven dwarfs of rapid-fire home buying businesses: “We Buy Ugly Houses,” “We Buy Sad Houses,” “We Buy Raggedy Houses,” “We Buy Broke Houses” and “We Buy Ugly Houses and Make Them Nice Again.” There’s also this motherly trademark, “We Buy Houses Just the Way They Are.”

In any case, if in a bind for a synonym, here’s some suggested substitutes for “buy” that The Real Deal has found handy over the years: snag, snap up, purchase, pick up and acquire. That’s pretty much it.