A couple years ago on a road trip to California (yeah, I have road trips on my mind at the moment), we realized on day two we had forgotten our camera charger. In our motel in Palm Springs I did a quick Google search for a compatible adapter, and found a few online retailers who sold it. One of them (unlike most online-only operations) listed a phone number and city, Hacienda Heights, which another quick Google map search showed was right on our way into Los Angeles. I called and explained that we were traveling, so I was hoping we could drop by in person to purchase the charger. They said that was fine, gave me the address, and an hour or so later we were pulling up to a home in a solidly middle-class residential neighborhood.

Walking into the home and seeing the extent of the retail and phone operations there was fascinating. It seemed to be a family operation, with about four 20-something young men installed at computers with headsets, some taking orders by phone and others managing databases and website orders. The sweet woman who greeted us at the door appeared to be their mom and/or aunt, and she seemed to be running the show. The entire set of rooms that we could see — living room, dining room and kitchen (and garage, which we walked through) — was filled with well-organized shelves of inventory and packaging supplies. The phones rang constantly, the tapping of keyboards was constant, and the woman who greeted us never stopped moving or packing boxes with product ready to ship.

We were only there for a few minutes, but I’ll always remember my geeky thrill of seeing the real-life operations of this online storefront — and having a moment of realization that probably a huge percentage of online businesses are run this way.

Because they were so sweet and friendly (and not to mention totally answered our prayers by having a slightly outdated camera charger in stock), I found myself feeling a little protective and hoped they never ran into zoning trouble. From the outside you’d never know the extent of the operations they were running in the home, but multiple daily stops by UPS or noisy suppliers’ trucks could trigger neighbor complaints, which is typically how home businesses come onto the radar of zoning officials.

Most home businesses aren’t as extensive as this one — but even some tiny operations learn the hard way that they’re in violation of their city’s rules. Here’s a book excerpt on some of the typical restrictions that cities and counties impose on home businesses. Make sure you understand your local rules before you launch your venture at home.

Typical Restrictions on Home Businesses

Assuming that your local zoning laws do allow your type of home business, they are likely to impose some restrictions. On one hand, there’s an awful lot of variation from city to city and county to county, so you absolutely need to find out the specific rules for your area and not assume there is a standard set of rules. On the other hand, some general types of restrictions (if not the actual details of the restrictions) are pretty common. These include:

  • prohibiting any nonresidents of the home to be employed on-site, or restricting nonresident on-site employees to just one or two people
  • requiring client or customer visits to the home office to be by appointment only
  • restricting the business use of the home to a percentage of the floor space — say, no more than 25%
  • prohibiting the use and/or parking of certain vehicles, such as trucks exceeding one ton
  • restricting the number of customers that may come to your house — say, no more than two per day, and
  • prohibiting signs outside of your house that advertise the business.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, home businesses cannot employ anyone other than members of the family in the home, and the business may not use more than 25% of the usable floor area of the home, including the basement.

In Austin, Texas, it is illegal for any equipment or materials associated with the home business to be visible from the street.

And in Sacramento, California, home businesses are not allowed to use any trucks larger than one ton.

In addition to these general limitations, cities often impose restrictions on specific types of home businesses. For instance, a city might forbid any type of home business from having a neon sign or it might have a special rule for landscapers that prohibits landscaping supplies from being kept at the home office. Be sure to find out from zoning officials or the local city hall whether there are special rules for your type of business.

—Adapted from The Small Business Start-Up Kit and The Women’s Small Business Start-Up Kit (Nolo).



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