The past decade has seen a steady increase of businesses being run from individual’s homes and the changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have only increased this trend. Whether a “side-hustle” or primary source of income, business owners should carefully consider the legal and tax rules at play before opening their homes for business.
In addition to aspects relevant to all businesses, those operating a business from home must consider: (1) relevant property restrictions, (2) home business tax deductions, and (3) special liability and insurance considerations.
Property restrictions should be among the earliest factors analyzed, ideally before expenses are invested into the venture, as municipal zoning or private land restrictions may flatly prohibit the at-home business altogether.
Counties and municipalities enforce zoning restrictions which classify large swaths of land under different rules for use. These zoning programs are intended to organize land use in a planned and practical manner. For example, zoning codes may protect the interests of quiet suburbs by prohibiting the construction of multi-unit apartments or noisy factories in the area. While every local government unit has their own approach to zoning, generally, larger communities have more specific, restrictive, and regularly enforced zoning programs than smaller ones. Depending on your local rules, your home may be in an area which prohibits commercial activity. Whether your planned business falls under the relevant rules can only be determined by checking to see how the local codes define and restrict commercial use. Faced with an adverse zoning designation, you may be able to apply for a variance – a special exception to the zoning rule applied for and reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Your use of the home may also be subject to private land-use restrictions. Most obviously if you rent your home, your lease may restrict your ability to operate a business from the property. If you have a good relationship with your landlord, they may be willing to amend the lease, as the inclusion of commercial use restrictions in the lease is often the result of a landlord using a form document, not their particular objection to you using the property that way.
Homeowners are not necessarily free from private party restrictions, as many properties are subject to restrictive covenants. These documents are essentially private contracts that were put into place by former owners and whose terms automatically pass on to new owners of the property. Some neighborhoods form Homeowner Associations to enforce these covenants. Others do not, but still allow any property owner, also subject to the covenants, to sue for their enforcement. Make sure to read your restrictive covenants carefully before opening a business. In addition to restrictions on business operations, check the rules for signage restrictions and parking and guest vehicle restrictions if clients will be visiting your home office. If the covenants restrict the type of activity you plan to perform, check to see what process is available for amending them.
Assuming no land use restrictions prevent you from operating the business from your home, you will want to ensure you are taking maximum advantage of any available tax saving options. When considered during the onset of a new business, these tax rules may influence how you choose to organize running the business from your home.
Businesses are entitled under the tax code to deduct necessary and ordinary business expenses from their taxes. For example, if a business purchases a couch for their waiting room and hires a cleaning service to maintain it, this will typically be deductible as a business expense. If an individual purchases that same couch for personal use and hires the same cleaning crew to clean their home, this expense is not entitled to deduction. Because of a home business’s inherent melding of business and personal use expenses, the rules for home office deductions are somewhat complex. This article will review in broad strokes how these rules operate, but a qualified tax accountant or attorney can help guide you through the nuance of your particular situation. While no substitute to qualified professional advice, Reviewing IRS Publication 587 may also be a good start to understanding the basic rules at play.
The first step towards taking advantage of these tax benefits is to qualify for the deduction. Generally to qualify, a part of your home must be used exclusively and regularly for business purposes. As an example, using your living room couch as a place to sit when you check email is unlikely to qualify. Special variations of the general rules exist for unattached separate structures, space used for storage of inventory, daycare facilities or property used for rental purposes. Like most areas of law, the qualification tests are deceptively simple, and careful attention must be paid to how the rules define each word in a given test.
Assuming you qualify to take the deduction, the next step is to calculate the amount of the deduction. Here, you have a choice for each year you claim the deduction, either use a calculation for actual expenses or elect to use the simplified method offered by the IRS. Whatever your method of accounting for the deduction, make sure to keep adequate records to support your claims if you are challenged by the IRS. Your records should be maintained as long as the facts they support may still be challenged. For tax purposes, this usually is three years following the date that year’s tax return was filed.
Liability and Insurance
A lawsuit can wipe out years worth of income if proper precautions are not taken by a business owner and running a business from the home introduces unique risks. These risks are compounded if you have business clients or employees of the business meet or work at your home.
Like all business owners, a home business operator should consider forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC), Corporation or other form of limited liability business entity to operate their business out of to shield their personal assets from any suits made against their business.
To the extent possible, anyone entering your home for business purposes should remain in the portion of the property used for the business, as an injury occurring in another part of the home may blur lines between a business contact of your LLC and a house guest to whom you are personally liable for. It may be difficult to argue a personal injury lawsuit should be limited to your LLC when the injury was a result of tripping over a toy left in the living room by your child.
Even with proper limited liability entity planning, the assets of the business inside the entity are still subject to the suit and may be a devasting loss if liquidated to pay a settlement or judgement. Thus, insurance on the business is the first line of defense to maintain your assets, with the limited liability entity planning serving as an emergency flood wall against a disastrous lawsuit wiping out your entire estate. Most homeowner’s carry homeowner’s insurance, but these policies may not cover damages flowing from business use of the property. You should consult with your insurance provider to make sure you are appropriately covered and whether you need a supplemental business insurance policy. In addition to liability coverage, if your business owns expensive equipment or large amounts of inventory stored in your home, consider loss coverage to fund the replacement of those assets in the event of a flood, theft, or fire. Like with liability coverage, homeowner’s coverage for your personal assets will be unlikely to cover the garage full of business inventory that is damaged, destroyed or stolen without additional coverage options. If you have questions, do not hesitate to reach out to one of our business or tax law attorneys.