Commercial or residential?

Check your zoning laws before hanging out your shingle

Picture this: you’ve worked hard to ready your home-based print shop. But within a few months of opening for business, an anonymous telephone call to the local zoning board threatens to padlock your entire operation.

Think this couldn’t happen to you? Think again. No matter what type of home business you plan to start, you could find yourself shut down if you don’t check the
zoning laws in your area first.

Many home-based business owners forgo checking regulations. Instead, they operate on the good graces of their neighbors. But Kelli Ormond, director of public relations for the Home Office Association of America in New York, insists that owners do their homework.

“It’s important to check your local zoning laws because some areas prohibit home businesses, while others place heavy restrictions on them,” says Ormond. “So if you start operating without doing some research first, and are found in violation of the law, you could be fined, and in extreme cases, prosecuted.”

There are no standard requirements regarding home-based businesses. In fact, the laws concerning these ventures vary from city to city and state to state.

For example, in Phoenix, home-based businesses aren’t permitted to generate additional traffic or upset the character of the community. However, in Carol County, Maryland, home-based entrepreneurs who obtain a variance, also known as a conditional-use permit, can admit customers and employees to their businesses.
While zoning laws vary, some specific restrictions could apply in your community:

  • Number of employees working in the home.
  • The right to build separate structures on your premises.
  • Amount of vehicular traffic in the neighborhood.
  • Size and style of signage.
  • Amount of customer parking.
  • Use of outdoor storage containers.
  • Percentage of your home used exclusively for business.
  • Types of equipment and materials.

To research zoning laws in your area, contact your local zoning or planning board. If you live in an apartment, condominium or co-op, or rent a home, check your lease or ownership agreement to find out whether operating a business from your residence is permitted.

Depending on the laws in your area and the type of business you want to start, you may have to obtain a home occupation permit or a business license. The licensing process may involve an inspection to determine whether your home meets the local health, building and fire codes. Permit fees range from $25 to $100.

If your area doesn’t permit the type of business you’d like to start, consider filing for a variance with your community’s zoning or planning appeals board. A variance allows you to operate a business in an area not zoned for that purpose. However, variances are not easy to get. To obtain one, you’ll have to prove that your livelihood would be jeopardized without one and that your business wouldn’t change the character of your community.

If a variance isn’t possible, try forming a committee of home-based business owners to lobby your local government for less stringent laws. For more information, call the Home Office Association of America at 800-809-4622.

To obtain back issues containing other parts of this series, please contact our circulation department at 212-886-9568.
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