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A home-based or online business often requires the same level of compliance as a traditional bricks-and-mortar commercial establishment.
Because a home-based or online business operates with the goal generating revenue by selling goods or services to the public, most of the rules designed to guard the public and collect tax revenue apply. This includes obtaining an array of business licenses, permits, and zoning approvals, as well as incorporating or forming an LLC to operate your business legally, protect your personal assets, avoid fines and penalties, and boost your business credibility.
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If you are considering a home-based or online business, then it is important to do your research well in advance. Obtaining the business licenses, permits, and zoning approvals can be a time-consuming process. If you don't allow enough lead time, you may have to delay your business launch.
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This article will explore some of the obvious—and not-so-obvious—rules and regulations that are frequently imposed on home or online businesses. It will also touch on considerations that are specific to operating a commercial enterprise in a residential area, such as zoning restrictions.
The types of required permits depend upon a number of factors: type of business, business structure, number of employees, and geographic location of the business. The following licenses are not home-business specific—they are just part of the cost of opening any business. (While few businesses will require each of the permits, each business will require some of them.)
The list given above applies to any business. However, there are licensing rules that are triggered when a business is operated from a home (or in an area zoned as residential) and special considerations that come into play for the general type of permits.
If you plan to operate a business in an area that is zoned “residential,” you need to become familiar with the zoning ordinances. Certain business activities are prohibited completely in residential areas. For example, operating a website design company is likely to be permitted, but an auto repair shop may be prohibited.
Your first step is to contact your zoning office. It may be possible to comply with the restrictions with only minor tweaks to your business plan. However, if your business doesn’t fall within the zoning laws, then you may need to obtain a variance before you can open your doors. Although there are some arguments you can make if If you feel you must go the variance route, keep in mind that it might be better to tweak your business plan to fit the zoning requirements because it can be a time-consuming, expensive, and difficult process.
CT Tip: Even if your planned business does not run afoul of your local government's zoning restrictions, you might be violating the terms of your Home Owner’s Association (HOA) agreement. Originally confined to condominiums and cooperatives, many single-family communities now have HOAs that govern what residents can, and cannot, do on or to their property. It may be necessary to get an exception or waiver of the rules.
What about an online business? Many of the principles discussed above apply to a business that operates solely online. For example, an online business with employees will need to register with the workers' compensation and unemployment departments. While an online-only business is unlikely to run afoul of zoning laws or signage restrictions, the online proprietor must grapple with sales tax on certain transactions. In fact, the sales tax rules for online sales are often more complex, idiosyncratic, and ambiguous than those that apply to in-store or traditional mail order transactions. Therefore, a conversation with your accountant is advised before you start taking orders.
CT can assemble all the licensing applications and instructions you need to operate your online business legally.
Learn more about the small business incorporation package.
Information in this article has been updated for 2018.
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