Thinking about a home office?

by Linda L. Heineman, CPA

I must confess, I love my home office. Over the years I have continued to fine-tune how my office works so I can stay home as long as possible.

There are some great benefits to a home office. First, it's economical - no rent, no landlord. And, living in a traffic-clogged city like Los Angeles, it's wonderful not having to face a daily commute. You can work whenever you want. That flexibility is another reason why having a home office is so attractive. Being able to stop long enough to have dinner with your family and not have to drive back to work is great. Working at home late at night is much nicer than being stuck in a lonely office building without air conditioning.

There are many benefits afforded by a home office, either as a primary office or a satellite office. You will need, however, to become your own office manager, IT and HR director, and Feng Shui consultant, so there are many things to consider and quite a bit of planning before you start moving furniture and set up your home office.

Which room or rooms will your office occupy, the size of the rooms, lighting, access, traffic patterns in your house, ventilation, furniture and equipment design and placement, and power sources are among the many issues to consider.

A little research prior to making the move might avoid a big headache later on. Some counties, municipalities, and even neighborhood associations have ordinances that affect the kind of businesses that can be operated out of a home.

For instance, the California city of Rancho Cucamonga allows a professional to have a home office, however, employees not directly related to the office owner are prohibited from working there, and clients cannot be met in the home office. Additionally, the office cannot be located in the garage.

More bang for your space

My house was built in the 1930s and modern conveniences are not a part of the floor plan. The room I chose for my office has two doors leading to other rooms, a closet, two sets of French windows, and a gravity heater vent. When I began my practice the room had a hodgepodge of office furniture - none of it particularly functional.

The challenge was to design a space so that all of the doors and windows could open and the heater vent would not be obstructed or be close to equipment. I had custom cabinetry built so the desktop is a continuous surface covering two-and-a-half walls. There's enough space for two workstations, shelving, a drawer space below the countertop, and bookshelves on three of the walls. The fourth wall has four legal size file cabinets. All of these changes made the workflow much easier.

There are now organized areas for jobs in process, software, postage and mailing, office supplies, and library books. I also purchased additional lighting so that each workstation is properly illuminated.

The room originally was designed with only two electrical outlets, so I had to have additional electrical lines put in, along with several more outlets, so that I would not overload the circuits. I also had the wires pulled for the computer network.

Where's the hardware?

The space you choose may limit the size and type of equipment you have in your office. Each workstation in my office has a computer, two flat-panel screens, a phone, a light, and an adding machine. There are two scanners in the office, a multi-function printer, a postage meter, and the network server. (Instead of a postage meter, consider Internet postage. I have some sole proprietor friends who swear by it.)

A multi-function printer/fax/scanner /copier may be an excellent solution for your home office space. However, these machines have some limitations: they do all functions well, but not fabulously.

If you do use any of those functions heavily or need a certain quality of output, you may find that buying separate pieces of equipment is a better solution. In addition, if a multi-function machine goes down, you have several needs that will not be met, not just one. The biggest problem I have found is that you cannot fax, copy, scan, and print simultaneously. When there is more than one person in the office and you are sharing the machine, a multi-function machine can slow down the workflow because one person is printing and the other wants to fax or scan.

Computers in my office are replaced about every three years. Each time a computer is replaced it is upgraded to the fastest machine that I can get. The hard drive does not necessarily have to be enormous. Most of our data is stored on the server. If you are on a budget, check the minimum requirements of the software you use and compare that to the maximums being offered with the latest and greatest hardware, then shoot for middle of the road and that should work fine.

To keep two screens and your software running effectively, think about purchasing a Core Duo processor with two gigs of operating RAM, and a video card that supports dual monitors.

Each of my workstations has two computer screens - a change that came about primarily because of a desire to go paperless. However, even if you are not considering a paperless solution, the efficiency that you gain with more than one monitor is amazing. I'm sure that I will add a third monitor to each workstation as soon as possible. It takes a short amount of time to get used to looking at things on a screen as opposed to looking at a piece of paper, and once you get used to it, you wonder what took you so long to make the move.

Your computer network also may have some functionality that will eliminate the need for an extra piece of equipment.

When I installed a new server earlier this year, I started using the fax server capabilities in the network software. As you can see, the multi-function machine is now down to a copier/printer.

The one part of my office I have not upgraded is the phone system. My phone system is pretty ancient. I have two incoming lines and three phones. I may upgrade the phone system, but I've found that we do more and more by e-mail. The need for a spiffy phone system just keeps getting shoved aside.

What about clients?

The way my office is designed, there's no room to meet clients, so I use my living room or dining room as a conference room. This configuration may not work for everyone (especially those who live in municipalities where zoning ordinances prohibit it). If your house proves inadequate, you may be able to rent a conference room from an executive suite on an hourly basis. You also may be able to borrow a conference room from an associate.

Executive suites have other benefits for work-at-home practitioners. In addition to offering conference room space, they will answer your phones, take messages, forward calls, receive your mail, and sign for packages, all without you having to rent office space from them.

If you are simply looking for a separate address, you may want to rent a post office box or a box from a personal mail box store. (Be sure that the particular personal mail box store you choose will accept overnight packages and other mail that cannot be sent to a post office box.)

Not all clients are comfortable doing business out of somebody's home. I think that was true when I started my practice. However, times have changed and home offices are so common that I don't think it's much of an issue anymore. The solution is to be as professional and responsive as you would be in a regular office. Always put out a good product.

Stay disciplined, set some guidelines

One of the biggest problems with a home office is having the discipline to work without interruption. Treat your home office as if it's a different location than your home. Establish clearly defined office hours and let your clients, business associates, and vendors know what they are (and stick to them). for your office to be successful, you will need to train all of them as to when you are available and when you are not. If you must, turn off the phone's ringer, shut down the computer and lock the door.

Likewise, a home office should not be an excuse for you to be able to quit whenever you want to and goof off. I admit that I was tempted to distraction, but I found an excellent solution in hiring someone to help out in the office. Just having someone show up each morning made me accountable for running the office and staying focused.

You may need to train your family that your office is a sacred place to be respected. Ask them not to answer your office phone - unless you have hired them to do that. Let them know that when you are working they should not interrupt you.

Your office is not their Internet chat room. Do not let your kids use your office computers. Period. Most malware is downloaded by sites that kids visit. Put a password on your computer as well as on software you use that may tempt them. Make sure you have virus protection, spyware protection, and any other malware protection that you can think of. Make sure that your data is backed up on a regular basis and that your backups are off-site.

A word about employees. Because your employees will be working in your house, you need to choose them carefully. Conduct a background check in addition to checking references. You do not have to be incorporated to do this, but you need the prospect's permission to do so.

After all, these people will be sharing your personal space with your family. They will have access to things they wouldn't otherwise if your office was in a building. Consider not giving them a key right away. If you have an alarm system, give them their own separate code.

Having a home office is a wonderful way to work. Take the plunge and enjoy going to work every day.

About the author: Linda L. Heineman,, CPA, is a Pasadena-based sole practitioner. This article originally appeared in the California CPA magazine. Reprinted with permission from CPA Leadership Report.

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