Running your own business from home has a real charm to it. You’re your own boss. Your working hours are flexible. Costs are low since you don’t have to pay rent on a brick-and-mortar office. And there’s no need to ask permission from anyone to, say, walk your dog when the spirit moves you.
That said, not everyone is hardwired for running a successful home-based business. Making a serious go of it requires careful planning and hard work.
Getting ready to take the plunge? Here are 10 tips you’ll want to consider.
1. Pay attention to the permits
If you’re running a small business out of your home, you may need tax registrations, business and occupational licenses, and permits from state and local governments in order to operate legally. Check to see that your homeowner’s association is OK with the idea. It might have restrictions.
For help with questions like these, tap the experts at SCORE, a nonprofit that offers free business advice. The U.S. Small Business Administration is another source of help in getting you up to speed on permits and more. AARP’s small business center also includes articles and advice.
2. Update your insurance
It’s a good idea to add an insurance rider to your homeowner’s or renter’s policy in case a delivery person or client tumbles on your steps. Home-business owners typically get little or no coverage from their standard homeowner’s policy.
The cost of a rider might be around $100 a year per $2,500 of additional coverage. The added cost would vary by the type of work you do, the amount of insurance you want and the volume of inventory stored at home that you’ll want to protect from theft or damage.
If you need further coverage, you can opt for a business owners policy — an insurance package that covers your business property and provides liability coverage for clients coming to your home. These policies generally cost from $500 to $3,500 per year.
Each state has its own rules about insurance that can be offered to home-based outfits. Look up your particulars at the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group and information clearinghouse.
3. Don’t ignore the IRS
You will need to pay estimated federal taxes on business income each quarter, instead of once a year on April 15. Depending on the location of your business, you may be required to pay state and local income and business taxes, too. Go to the IRS Self-Employed Individual Tax Center to learn how to pay the federal taxes. You may also want to consult with your accountant.
4. Set aside a precise place for work
You should be able to take a tax deduction for 100 percent of costs directly related to your home office, such as the purchase of a work computer or printer toner.
The other kind of tax-deductible home office expenses are “indirect” ones that are prorated, based on the size of your home and office. These are things like your mortgage or rent, insurance and utility bills. Many people with home offices skip the tax break because they’re concerned the write-offs will trigger a tax audit. That’s unlikely.
In general, to get the deduction, the area must be used for work exclusively and on a regular basis, either as your main place of business or a location to meet with clients or to do paperwork, such as billing and ordering supplies. That means your kids can’t play games on your work computer when you’re away, and your spouse can’t set up the new elliptical machine in the home office space.
Generally speaking, if the square footage of your home office equals 10 percent of your home's total, you can claim 10 percent of its expenses. The IRS also has a “simplified option” rule, which allows you to deduct $5 per square foot of your home office on your return, with a maximum write-off of $1,500 (based on a maximum of 300 square feet). It’s a good idea to take a picture of the space so that you have a record, in case the IRS does scrutinize your return.
5. Establish a work schedule
It’s easy to get drawn into work filling every waking hour. You must be disciplined, manage your time well and be a self-starter. Set daily work hours and do your best to adhere to them. That’s easier said than done, but burnout will do nothing to boost your business.
6. Find a mentor
Working solo can be isolating. Sometimes you’ll need a professional to tap for some advice. Look for a mentor among your industry connections. This relationship can take time to build, but it’s worth it.
Another option is to find a virtual colleague. PivotPlanet, an online mentoring service, lets you connect with its expert advisers via one-on-one video and phone conferences. It’s designed to help shape a relationship that can evolve over a series of sessions at regular intervals or on an as-needed basis. These meetings are billed hourly at rates of $40 to $125.
7. Don’t overlook the human touch
Working at home can prevent you from developing workplace relationships and doing face-to-face networking for new clients. Push yourself to get out of the house regularly for lunch or meet with prospective clients or colleagues for coffee. And go to industry conferences. At the very least, make it a point from time to time to make a phone call instead of zapping off an email or text.
8. Network electronically
Get active in LinkedIn groups that relate to your industry and clients. Make posts and comment on posts by others. This will display your expertise and give you a feeling of being connected to a community. Check out this post on ways to improve your LinkedIn profile.
9. Spread the word
Learning how to promote yourself is a lynchpin for success. In addition to having a LinkedIn page, consider having Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter pages for your business. Check out competitors to see which networks they use professionally. Photographers, for example, often showcase their work on Instagram, while Pinterest is popular with people selling consumer goods such as jewelry and glassware.
10. Ramp up your tech skills
When you work for yourself, there’s no tech support person to call when things go haywire. Consider taking a computer class at a community college or, if you’re a Mac user, at an Apple store in your neighborhood. If you need to give presentations, you should become conversant with web-based meeting programs such as GoToMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Join.Me, TeamViewer, Zoom or Google+ Hangouts.
All of these tips will help you create a home-based business that has legs. But the biggest ingredient to your success will be your own drive and determination. The dreamy idea of working from home can be a nightmare if you don’t pay attention to the details.
Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is the author of What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties, and Beyond and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.