Last fall, I moved to a new city—and this spring, I learned that I needed a home occupation permit to freelance from my apartment.
Home occupation rules vary by city, and most freelancers are probably unaware that they even exist; I’ve moved more than once since I started working as a freelance writer, and I knew that I needed to look up business licenses and so on, but I never thought about getting the city’s permission to work from home. I mean, isn’t that what most of us are doing these days, whether we’re full-time freelancing or running a side hustle?
Home occupation permits were originally designed to regulate the types of home-based businesses that could potentially be a disruption to a residential neighborhood, such as daycares and hair salons. Some cities, such as Portland, divide home occupations into two types based on how much foot traffic they bring to the neighborhood: freelance writers don’t need home occupation permits, but freelance tutors do. Other cities require all small business owners and sole proprietors to obtain home occupation permits if they want to run their business out of their home. Even if you’re a side hustler, you may still need to file that permit and make your home-based business official.
How to determine whether you need a home occupation permit
Visit your city’s website and look for the sections titled “small business” and “zoning.” Information about home occupation permits should be in one of those sections. If you can’t find what you’re looking for—or if you want to be thorough—call your city zoning office and ask. That’s what I did, and they were very helpful!
Be aware that you may need a home occupation permit even if your business’s address is different from your home address. If you spend a large part of your time working from home, the city might decide that it counts as a home occupation.
How to get your landlord’s permission
If you do not own your home, you might need to prove that your landlord has signed off on your home occupation before the city will grant you a permit. If you own a condo or are part of a homeowner’s association, you may need approval from the property manager and/or HOA. In some cases, you may even need notarized documentation.
In my case, my landlord already knew that I was working from home; we discussed it when I toured the building and I made it clear on my rental application. This made the home occupation permit conversation relatively easy: I sent an email explaining that I needed the permit, attached a copy of the permit for his review, and asked my landlord to reconfirm that he was comfortable with my working from home.
If you transitioned to freelancing after you moved into your apartment/condo/HOA home, you may have to ask for permission instead of reconfirming it. This can feel a little awkward, but don’t let it intimidate you. Be as straightforward as possible about the work you do (“I spend roughly 40 hours/week writing and filing articles from my laptop, with occasional interviews conducted over phone/Skype”) and the minimal impact it will have on your neighbors.
What happens if you skip the permit?
At this point you’re probably thinking “There are tons of freelancers in my city. They can’t all have permits, right? What if I just… didn’t get one?”
Well, sure. You could continue to work at home without a permit, and you might not get caught—after all, you’ve already been working at home for a while and nobody’s tried to stop you. If the city does find out about your home-based business, one of two things will happen:
LIKELY SCENARIO: The city will send you a letter that essentially reads: “Hey, we saw that you were working from home. We need you to fill out this permit request, and we might fine you for not requesting the permit earlier.”
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The city will send you a letter asking you to shut down your business immediately.
Evaluate your risk tolerance before you proceed.
What happens if you apply for a permit and get turned down?
If you do not get approved for a home occupation permit, you may be able to file an appeal. If all else fails, you’ll need to stop working from home. This is tricky, because most people—whether they’re employees or freelancers—work from home every day; the morning email check, the late-night spreadsheeting, all the stuff that doesn’t fit into business hours.
In your case, you’ll probably want to find a coworking space or rent an office where you can conduct the majority of your business. Yes, you’ll still end up making some business calls or sending some emails from home, because everyone does that. However, your day-to-day work will take place somewhere else.
Reach out to your city’s small business association to ask for advice, and make another call to your zoning office to clarify your plans: will you need to open up a mailbox so your business is no longer linked to your home address, for example?
Remember: your city wants you to succeed. Home occupation permits are more about keeping boundaries between commercial and residential neighborhoods than anything else, and if you can prove that your business doesn’t breach those boundaries, you’re likely to get your permit approved.
And yes—that freelancing you’re doing to earn extra cash counts as a business. So treat it that way, even if it means requesting a permit to work from home.
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