There’s No Place Like Home (For Your Business)

Local zoning laws have long recognized the right of individuals to conduct a business in their homes, typically called “home occupations.”  However, different municipalities have defined what business activities constituted home occupations differently, the typical list including professions and other businesses that have historically been conducted by individuals in their homes.

In addition, different zoning ordinances had different standards for conducting home occupations, such as limitations on employees, parking requirements and maximum square footage to be devoted to the home occupation.  Some municipalities required that the individual go through a zoning hearing for a home occupation while others did not.  Some divided home occupations into different categories, such as low impact and high impact home occupations.

The economic benefits and convenience of being able to operate a business out of the home are obvious.  With the advent of the computer age, many businesses can be conducted at home with virtually no impact on the neighbors.  In recognition of these changes in how people do business, Pennsylvania law was amended in 2002 to add the following:

Zoning ordinances shall permit no-impact home-based businesses in all residential zones of the municipality as a use permitted by right, except that such permission shall not supercede any deed restriction, covenant or agreement restricting the use of land, or any other document applicable to a common interest ownership community.”

This amendment means that a “no-impact home-based business” must be permitted by a municipality in any residential district.  The 2002 amendments went on to define a “no-impact home-based business,” as follows:

“‘No-impact home-based business,’ a business or commercial activity administered or conducted as an accessory use which is clearly secondary to the use as a residential dwelling and which involves no customer, client or patient traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian, pickup, delivery or removal functions to or from the premises, in excess of those normally associated with residential use.  The business or commercial activity must satisfy the following requirements:

1. The business activity shall be compatible with the residential use of the property and surrounding residential uses.

2. The business shall employ no employees other than family members residing in the dwelling.

3. There shall be no display or sale of retail goods and no stockpiling or inventory of a substantial nature.

4. There shall be no outside appearance of a business use, including, but not limited to, parking, signs or lights.

5. The business activity may not use any equipment or process which creates noise, vibration, glare, fumes, odors or electrical or electronic interference, including interference with radio or television reception, which is detectable in the neighborhood.

6. The business activity may not generate any solid waste or sewage discharge, in volume or type, which is not normally associated with residential use in the neighborhood.

7. The business activity shall be conducted only within the dwelling and may not occupy more than 25% of the habitable floor area.

8. The business may not involve any illegal activity.”

(Note:  These are minimum standards for every ordinance; municipalities may broaden the scope of home occupations.)

Therefore, if a home occupation falls within the above guidelines, it must be permitted by right in every residential district in the municipality.  “By right” means that the individual is not required to go through a zoning hearing to obtain approval for a no-impact home-based business.

If an individual wants to operate a home occupation that does not come within the “no-impact” definition above, there may be other requirements of a municipality’s zoning ordinance that must be met.  For example, if clients or patients come to the premises, if there is an employee other than a family member residing at the dwelling, or if the individual wanted to put up a sign identifying the business location, he or she would have to examine the zoning ordinance in question to see whether the proposed home occupation is permitted and, if so, what requirements apply.  These could include a limitation on the number of outside employees, a limitation on square footage devoted to the home occupation, a minimum number of required parking spaces for customers or patients, and a maximum size for an identifying sign (typically small).  Zoning ordinances often require that the applicant go through a zoning hearing to obtain approval for a home occupation that is not a “no-impact” home occupation.

For those who live in condominiums or planned communities (i.e., developments with homeowners’ associations) note the fact that even if a proposed home occupation falls within the “no-impact home-based business” definition, permission from the municipality for such home-based business will not supercede any deed restriction, covenant or agreement in the condominium or homeowners association documents governing your community.  Those restrictions are private restrictions among the residents, and may be more restrictive than the zoning requirements of the municipality.

— Stu Cohen


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