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Can You Start a Business From Your Home?

Most of us dream of working from home – it means not having to battle rush-hour traffic to reach the office, plus if you run your own business, it’s rent-free too. Here’s one way you can.

Introduced in June 2003, the HDB Home Office Scheme is a government effort to nurture entrepreneurship. Owners or authorised occupiers or tenants can use their HDB flat or the living quarters of an HDB commercial-property address to register a business with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) as a home office.

Aside from registering with ACRA using your HDB address – you’d still need to seek approval from the HDB, says Wong Kee Peng, a manager at ACRA. Apply at the Online Business Licensing Service website (https://licences.business.gov.sg). Approval is instant, if you meet the HDB’s conditions and your trade isn’t on the list of non-permissible businesses.

To date, 18,900 HDB units have been approved for home office use, including Lisa Chaong’s online shop saplanetoriginals.com in 2007. “I make and sell crocheted products such as amigurumi toys, which originated in Japan,” says Lisa, who lives in a four-room HDB flat in the west.

“Applying for the home office permit was a breeze.” She pays $20 in administrative fees for every new or renewed application, which lasts five years. Lisa converted the family’s entertainment room into her home office, where she spends her time either processing orders or “crocheting the afternoon away”. To keep her residential address private, she uses Singapore Post’s “My Mailbox” redirecting service.

 

WHAT SORT OF BUSINESS ARE YOU ALLOWED TO OPERATE?

The thing to note is that your HDB flat must be used primarily as your residence. Hence, your business should not affect the character, ambience and environment of the residential estate, explains Tng Gek Tin, principal estates manager at HDB.

This means your business must not be illegal, immoral or a nuisance to your neighbours. Putting up advertisements or distributing flyers is also forbidden. The kinds of businesses permitted under the Scheme typically include architectural, accountancy, design, advertising, insurance and financial planning services, and technology-based and knowledge-intensive enterprises (IT, education, etc).

According to the HDB website, “negative businesses” are those that will bring traffic streaming to your door or block, such as a maid agency, contractor business, car trading enterprise or commercial school. You also cannot run a food catering business or restaurant, or a beauty, hairdressing or massage parlour.

However, even if your business is on the “negative list”, you can still use your home as an admin office as long as you don’t conduct actual business activities there. You can hire up to two non-occupiers (employees or business partners) to work. Home office users are also required to install a battery-operated single-station smoke detector at their office area, and have a two-kg ABC-class dry chemical powder fire extinguisher on stand-by. These are easily available at DIY shops.

Don’t forget that as a self-employed person, any income generated from your business – conducted from home or otherwise – is subject to tax. If your net trade income exceeds $6,000, you’ll also have to contribute to your Medisave account.

 

HOME OFFICE VS SMALL-SCALE HOME BUSINESS

Both are home-based schemes offered by HDB. The Home Office Scheme requires a permit, but the home-based Small-Scale Business Scheme, which caters to flat dwellers looking to make some extra pocket money, does not require prior approval from HDB. These small-scale business activities must not disturb your neighbours, introduce extra traffic to the neighbourhood or create noise, smells or danger, or flout the rules set by other bodies such as the National Environment Agency.

“The restrictions differ, so research your trade requirements before deciding which scheme fits your needs,” says Lisa. For example, you can conduct private tuition for not more than three students at a time as a small-scale business activity, but cannot apply for a home offi ce licence to run an education centre. While you cannot run a full-service beauty salon under the Home Office Scheme, you can provide hairdressing services to supplement your household income. You can also bake cakes on a small scale to sell to friends as long as you don’t turn your flat into a bakery.

Incidentally, this was how Bengawan Solo founder Anastasia Liew started her empire. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, she was baking and supplying kueh and cakes to supermarkets from the tiny kitchen of her Marine Parade flat. She launched her first Bengawan Solo store when the Ministry of the Environment caught up with her for unlicensed food production, and today owns 44 outlets and a factory in Woodlands.

Another home baker, Sandra Liao, is mindful not to break the law. “I know that I cannot run a wholesale business from my HDB flat. It’s impossible for me anyway, as my pastries and tarts are all made from scratch in a very labour-intensive process,” says the ex-IT salesperson, who is taking a few months off work and accepts only 20 orders a week. She makes cupcakes, tarts, preserves and caramels under her own Milk Bar brand in the kitchen of her four-room flat in Queenstown. “It’s my way of making a little income while I decide on my next career path,” she says.

Besides saving on rent and time, and appreciating the ease of running a business from home, such entrepreneurs also enjoy a host of goodies from the government. There are annual events, networking sessions, focus group discussions and special talks, such as one organised by Spring Singapore on enterprise development schemes. Best of all, home office users can even advertise their products and services on the HBiz website. At just $20 for a five-year approval, it’s a pretty good deal.

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