Beating the System

There's No Place Like A Home-Zoned Office

The problem: How do you run a homebased business and still comply with those pesky zoning laws?

Reality check: While many regulations have been relaxed in recent years, if you're mired in zoning dilemmas, it's very difficult to get out of them, says Beverley Williams, president and founder of the American Association of Home-Based Businesses. And woe to those who live in Los Angeles, easily the city with the worst of the home-business zoning laws, says Williams."There aren't that many success stories," she says. "A lot of people don't beat the system. It's so costly in time, money and emotion that a lot of people simply move or go `underground' and hope nobody catches them."

So we're celebrating any success story we can: Follow the lead of Matt Miller, owner of Matt Miller Design, an architectural firm founded in 1994. The 31-year-old and his business are housed in an old home (built in 1859) in the South End of Boston. "It's a very trendy neighborhood, full of brick houses, pocket parks and gas lamps," he says.

Miller knew when he bought the house that he wanted to run his business from it--and that's where the zoning issue became tricky. It shouldn't have been, however. Over the years, the house had been home to several businesses, including a hamburger joint and a piano restoration company.

But--and hang on, because it's a convoluted ride--whereas the zoning laws had the home listed as a single-family house, there were two addresses listed for it: one for the residence and one for the previous piano restoration business. "Which shows how the records got screwed up," says Miller. But then, that's The System for you.

For advice, Miller called Allen Lynch, an attorney at Peabody & Brown in Boston. The two then conferred with the local zoning enforcement office. Today, Miller continues with a residential use permit and pays commercial taxes--thereby avoiding fees and paperwork. The type of business he runs out of his home is legal according to zoning laws.

Bottom-line advice: Get an attorney, suggests Miller. And his attorney, Lynch, suggests, "If you need to do missionary work with your neighbors, you should. Because these situations are so low on the priority list, the zoning board doesn't go knocking on doors, seeking to shut down businesses. You get into trouble when the neighbors pick up the phone."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the May 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Beating the System.

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