You’ve been running your successful home-based business for some time now, but your life situation has changed and the home you own no longer meets your needs. You’re in the market to buy…but have you considered whether your new home will qualify as a place of business as well as a residence? Can you continue to run your business out of your new home?
Often when entrepreneurs are shopping for their new digs, they forget to inquire about potential hot-button items for home-based businesses. By keeping these requirements in your sights, you’ll be settled in – within the law – in no time.
Get in the Zone
The zoning office, that is. Your first stop should always be the zoning office for your new property. Ask for copies of all ordinances that apply to home occupations. It’s a good idea to avoid the word “business” during these inquiries. The word “business” can raise red flags for zoning officials; the words “home occupations” or “home workers” are much less inflammatory. Remember to ask for regulations that apply to all aspects of home employment; you don’t only need to worry about zoning requirements, but also about fire, vendor and mercantile regulations as well.
Your county and municipal government offices will also be able to provide you with a list of any possible roadblocks to your home-based business that may pop up. Often this information is posted to the government office’s website, making it more convenient to get the information you need. If you do need to make a phone call, it’s best to use a cell phone or a landline not associated with a property in that town or municipality. Explain to the staff member that you’re considering a move to their area and need to know what regulations apply to your specific home occupation. Be prepared to describe your work in detail. In most cases, the person you speak to will be able to tell you during that call if you’ll be in the clear with your work, or if you’ll need special permission (known as a variance) to set up your business in their area.
You also need to check with the homeowner’s association of the community, if one exists. HOA’s may have limitations on home-based businesses that could affect your ability to work from home.
If the local government or your HOA prohibits the type of home-based business you run, you can request a hearing for a special exception from your HOA or a variance from your local government. There’s a good chance a special exception hearing brought before your HOA may be successful, especially if your business doesn’t require foot traffic in and out of the residence or signage of any type. The lower the impact of your business on the daily lives of the local community, the more likely it is to be granted. Variances are much more difficult and expensive to obtain at the governmental level. They are usually time-consuming, costly and often denied.
If you do obtain a variance, be aware that this “win” will also convert your home to a commercial property. This means that fire safety inspections can be called for at any time, without a warrant or warning. You’ll also need to comply with any applicable ADA, OSHA and commercial laws. Differences in tax assessments may also apply. Keep in mind that variances are also completely revocable at any time, for any reasonable complaint. If, by chance, your neighbor complains about excessive deliveries of products and supplies for your business to the local authorities, your variance could disappear in an instant. You will have no recourse – there are no promises given when variances are issued.
“Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell?”
Many owners of home-based businesses may think it’s wise to operate under the radar; hoping that what their neighbors and local government officials don’t know won’t hurt them. It’s a risky proposition, but it happens every day. Many local government officials such as mayors, committee members and elected officials know that this situation exists, and realize as many as 40% of their community residents may be running a business out of their homes. It is true that many will choose to look the other way as long as there are no complaints or incidents that arise from the existence of a home-based business. However, if issues do arise, it will always be on the shoulders of the home-business owner to explain why they didn’t investigate the current regulations and comply with them. Legal issues, fines and even the closure of the business could be the result.
While zoning laws and local regulations for your home-based business may seem designed to make it next to impossible for you to follow your dreams, keep in mind that they’re actually there to protect the community as a whole. These regulations help limit noise, traffic and other issues that can affect the safety and desirability of the neighborhood where you live. Try to look at your business objectively; does what you do put your neighbors at higher risk of injury or diminish their enjoyment of their home? While most home-based businesses don’t, there are exceptions. It’s best to have the approval of your HOA or local government, just in case. You’ll need to be sure the new residence you buy will be not only the ideal home for your family, but for your business as well.