Operating a home-based business comes with its own set of do’s and don’ts. Chief among them: Be discreet. Round-the-clock package deliveries and clients who park in your neighbors’ driveways will garner ill will and make it more difficult to run your company, says Gene Fairbrother, president of MBA Consulting Inc., a Dallas-based firm that counsels small businesses. He recently spoke with business writer Susan Caminiti about how to work—and live—in harmony from home.
SC: What types of businesses have to be most concerned about upsetting the neighborhood?
GF: Businesses with two or three employees that have to park their cars in front or near your house, come to mind. Also, businesses that have a separate office for clients or customers need to be aware of their impact. An example would be a photography studio where people are coming in for appointments throughout the day. If you run a home-based business that gets frequent deliveries you need to be aware of how that impacts your neighbors. In short, any business that generates visual traffic should take care to minimize their impact on the neighborhood.
SC: Do towns and cities typically have rules or regulations for home-based businesses?
GF: Yes, there are two regulatory areas to look at. The first one is with the town. It can have restrictions on how many employees a home business can have, so you need to know what you’re dealing with. If you have three employees and your city or town says that you can have one employee working out of a home-based business, they can shut you down.
The other groups you have to look at, which are becoming more and more prominent these days, are homeowner associations. It’s very common for homeowner regulations to have specific language about operating a home business. You want to know the restrictions so that you don’t cross that line.
GF: Think about a plumber or electrician who needs to have a large van for work. They’re not operating the business out of their home, but they might want to park their van there at night. Well, some towns have restrictions on parking commercial vehicles in residential neighborhoods. If that’s the case, you’re going to have to find an alternate place to keep these vehicles.
SC: Generally speaking, how strict are towns and cities in enforcing these rules?
GF: Most take the position that if no one complains they’re not going to go out and press the issue. They’re not interested in going out to investigate individuals that are running home businesses. But if they get a complaint, they’re going to have to act on it.
SC: What are some tips then for keeping neighbors happy while still being able to run your home-based business?
GF: First off, be considerate. You may be running a business out of your house, but it’s still your home and you’re part of a neighborhood. Stay involved in neighborhood activities or become part of your homeowners association.
Secondly, be discreet. For example, if you’re the type of business with ongoing meetings with customers, don’t do them all at your home. Most small businesses don’t want clients coming to their house anyway, so arrange to meet them at a local coffee shop or restaurant. The point is not to have a steady stream of people coming into and out of your house all day. Now if you operate a business out of your home like a hair salon, that’s a little more difficult.
SC: What’s the solution in that case?
GF: Don’t schedule clients so that their appointments overlap. Let one customer leave before another person comes in. And ask customers to help you out by requesting that they don’t park across the neighbors’ driveways or in any way block their house. Most clients will understand because you’re operating out of your home.
SC: You mentioned business owners that get frequent deliveries. What’s the best practice there?
GF: If you get a lot of deliveries you don’t want a UPS truck coming to your house two to three times a day with one package. Arrange with your suppliers to get deliveries on a certain day so that you’re getting 20 boxes at once instead of one.
SC: Does it make sense to have the packages sent somewhere else?
GF: Sure, you can set up an account with a UPS store or Mailboxes Etc. to have packages delivered there. Now, if you’re getting 50 boxes you might not necessarily want to have them delivered somewhere else and then worry about getting them into your car. But otherwise, it might be a good idea to arrange to pick these packages up elsewhere.
SC: What if you get a complaint from a neighbor? What’s the best way to handle it?
GF: You can certainly talk to them and ask what might appease them. Ask what bothers them the most and how to work it out. If they say they just don’t like living next door to someone who runs a home-based business, it might be time to move into a separate location for your company.
SC: What’s the biggest mistake a small business owner can make with all this?
GF: You can’t adopt the attitude, ‘It’s my business and I don’t care what the neighbors think.’ That’s not going to go well. Even if you’re following all the rules for your town or city, you don’t want to live in an area where you’re miserable because your neighbors complain about you. Owning a home-based business isn’t just about enhancing your livelihood, but your lifestyle as well. If you’re upsetting all the neighbors and they’re on your case, you’re not going to have a good lifestyle.
This interview has been edited and condensed.