Most people who start a home-based business aren't trying to break the law. When researching the legalities of operating a business out of their homes, they tend to research the obvious: start-up costs, taxes and incentives for the small business. How many research zoning laws?
Zoning is a major consideration for anyone who aims to begin a home-based business. Certain neighborhoods make it explicitly illegal to operate businesses within their confines. In some cases, if you violate the zoning rules, your business can be shut down. Unfortunately, many home business owners aren't aware of their neighborhood zoning laws until it's too late.
Zoning laws aren't the same as tax laws or the weather - they don't affect every business in the same way. Be mindful of noise, trash, parking spaces, traffic and the area surrounding your home. If you affect any one of these areas, your business is affecting your neighborhood. Your neighbors care more about their property value then whether or not you pull a profit. If you're going to get in trouble with the zoning board, it's usually after a neighbor drafts a letter and rats you out. As long as you're respectful of their needs, you're probably all right.
Also, just because you're in a residential area, your business isn't automatically violating the zoning laws. You may need to apply for a specific license or pay a fee for a variance. The zoning board may notify your neighbors and hold a hearing to see if your business should be allowed to operate in a residential area. If this does happen, keep in mind that the same people with whom you gossip over the back fence might not be so keen on your running a software company out of your back office. Things could get nasty if they don't want this sort of thing in their neighborhood. Out of courtesy, it's a good idea to apprise them of your plans ahead of time.
As with everything in life and business, common sense is king. If you are selling a product, make sure it doesn't violate neighborhood restrictions. Hazardous materials have no business being in a residential area and will definitely put you in violation of zoning laws. Include researching your material's safety when you look into zoning issues.
The one case that will definitely require zoning board approval is if you are planning to expand your home to accommodate your business. Since most people don't want to live in a business zone, it's a good idea to keep the appearance of your add-on very residential.
In any case, thorough research of the zoning laws in your area will pay off. Your city and county municipal offices will have all the necessary information. Be sure to check with them before opening your doors to the public.