Legal Restrictions on Inventing at Home

If you plan to do your inventing at home, you may have potential problems with your local zoning laws or with land use restrictions

If you plan to do your inventing at home, you may have potential problems with your local zoning laws or with land use restrictions in your lease or condominium rules. However, even if your community is unfriendly to home workplaces, there are many things you can do to avoid difficulties.

Zoning Laws

Municipalities have the right to make rules about what types of activities can be carried out in different areas. For example, cities and towns often establish commercial zones for stores and offices, industrial zones for factories and residential zones for houses and apartments.

Some communities--Houston, for example-- have no zoning restrictions at all. However, most do, and they have laws limiting the kinds of business you can conduct in a residential zone. The purpose of these restrictions is to help maintain the peace and quiet of residential neighborhoods.

Although your inventing may feel like a hobby to you, it’s a business when it comes to these zoning laws. Fortunately, the growing trend across the country is to permit home businesses. Many cities -- Los Angeles and Phoenix, for example -- have updated their zoning laws to permit many home businesses. However, some communities remain hostile to home businesses.

To find out where your community falls on the issue, carefully read your local zoning ordinance. You can obtain a copy from your city or county clerk’s office or your public library.

Zoning ordinances are worded in many different ways to limit businesses in residential areas. Some are extremely vague, allowing “customary home-based occupations.” Others allow homeowners to use their houses for a broad but, unfortunately, not very specific list of business purposes -- for example, “professions and domestic occupations, crafts and services.” Still others contain a detailed list of approved occupations, such as “law, dentistry, medicine, music lessons, photography, cabinetmaking.” Whether inventing falls within one of these categories is often unclear -- meaning it may be difficult or impossible to know for sure whether your local zoning ordinance bars home inventing businesses.

Ordinances that permit home-based businesses typically include detailed regulations on how you can carry out your business activities. These regulations vary widely, but the most common types limit car and truck traffic and restrict the number of employees who can work at your house on a regular basis (indeed, some prohibit employees altogether.) Some ordinances also limit the percentage of your home’s floor space that can be devoted to your business. Again, study your ordinance carefully to see how these rules apply to you.

Most ordinances prohibit activities that cause excessive noise, pollution, waste, odors and similar conditions not appropriate in a residential neighborhood.  

Public Nuisance Laws

Even if your community doesn’t have restrictive zoning laws concerning home businesses, it could take legal action against you if you make a nuisance of yourself. It’s illegal to create a public nuisance -- that is, do something that may harm public heath or safety; for example, creating excessive noise or offensive odors, or storing hazardous chemicals or waste.

Deed Restrictions

Property deeds often contain restrictions, called restrictive covenants, limiting how you can use your property. Restrictive covenants can bar or limit the use of home workplaces. These may apply both to homeowners and renters.

You can find out if your deed has such restrictions by reading your title insurance policy or checking your deed. If you’re a renter, ask your landlord about such restrictions -- preferably before you move in.

If your neighbors believe you’re violating these restrictions, they can take court action to stop you. Such restrictions are usually enforced by the courts unless they are unreasonable or the character of the neighborhood has changed so much since they were written that it makes no sense to enforce them.

Condominium Restrictions

One in six Americans lives in a planned community with a homeowners’ association. When you buy property in such a development, you automatically become a member of the homeowners’ association and agree to follow its rules, which are usually set forth in a lengthy document called Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, or CC&Rs for short. CC&Rs often regulate in minute detail what you can do on, in and to your property. The homeowners’ association is in charge of modifying and enforcing these rules.

The CC&Rs for many developments specifically bar home workplaces. The homeowners’ association may be able to impose fines and other penalties against you if your business violates the rules. It could also sue you in court to get money damages or other penalties. Some homeowners’ associations are very strict about enforcing their rules against home businesses, others are much less so.

Carefully study the CC&Rs before you buy into a condominium, planned development or cooperative to see if home workplaces are prohibited. If so, you may want to buy somewhere else.

If you’re already in a development that bars home workplaces, you may be able to avoid problems if you’re unobtrusive and your neighbors are unaware you have a home workplace. However, the best course may be to seek to change the CC&Rs. Most homeowners’ associations rule through a board of directors whose members are elected by all the members of the association. Lobby members of the board about changing the rules to permit home workplaces. If that fails, another strategy is for you and like-minded neighbors to try to get seats on the board and gain a voice in policymaking.

Lease Restrictions

If you are a renter, check your lease before you start your home business. Many standard lease forms prohibit tenants from conducting a business on the premises -- or prohibit certain types of business. Theoretically, your landlord could evict you if you violate such a lease provision. However, in practice, few landlords want to evict their tenants. Most don’t care what you do on your premises as long as it doesn’t disturb your neighbors, create noise, pollution or landlord liability or cause damage. Keep up good neighbor relations to prevent complaints.

However, if you have business visitors, your landlord may require you to obtain liability insurance in case a visitor has an accident such as a trip or fall on the premises.

When to Talk to a Lawyer

If your local government, landlord, or homeowners' association complains about your home inventing activities, or attempts to prevent you from inventing at home, you may wish to seek guidance from an experienced lawyer.

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