What Every Independent Music Teacher Should Know About
Business Licenses and Zoning Regulations
Heather Smith, NCTM
MTNA Business Digest, Volume 1, Issue 1
When launching a music studio, it is important to understand the requirements for local business licenses and zoning regulations. Following zoning laws and acquiring a business license when necessary protects a private studio or commercial school from unwanted fines or closure for noncompliance, so it is wise for us all to be educated on this important topic.
Business licenses are intended to protect the general public. In many communities, a business license is required to operate any type of business, including a music studio. Business licenses are issued by local government agencies that allow businesses to operate in their jurisdiction.
Each community handles business licenses differently. Typically, a company's business activity and location determine which licenses are required. Government agencies can fine or even close a business if owners fail to get a required business license. This is also true for teachers who operate a music studio in their home. It is important to do your research because not knowing that you need to get a business license is not a valid excuse for failing to acquire one when required. Visit your state, county, and city websites and read up on the regulations to find out which permits and/or licenses you need.
Some cities and counties don't require a business to obtain a license, while others collect a business-licensing fee on an annual basis. For several years, the city where I live required a business license to operate a home business. Because I run a music studio in my home, I was required to pay an annual fee and renew my business license each year. The requirements have since changed and business licenses are no longer required to run a home business in my city. Because laws can change, I check each year to make sure that I am following my city’s regulations. [Such a good point, Heather!] While I am no longer required to have a business license to run a music studio in my home, I am required to follow the city’s home business zoning regulations.
Why do we have zoning regulations and why is it important that we comply with the regulations? The purpose of zoning regulations for home occupations is to ensure that home occupation businesses do not disturb the residential character of the neighborhood. A home occupation is defined as the use of a portion of a dwelling for occupations which are conducted in the home (such as teaching music).
In my city, the zoning rules are listed on my city’s website in the home occupation section of the municipality codes. Items covered include:
- What type of businesses are permitted to operate in a home
- Whether employees are allowed
- Hours of operation
- Whether modifications to the home are allowed
- Noise nuisance ordinances
- How a home occupation cannot disrupt residential character of the neighborhood
- How much of the home may be used for a home occupation business
- Traffic and parking requirements
- Signage rules
If you plan to teach out of your home, make sure your business conforms to local zoning requirements. Neighborhoods are generally zoned for residential use. Zoning regulations can restrict or entirely ban specific kinds of businesses from operating in an area. Zoning regulations are typically controlled at the local level, so check with your city or county to find out about the zoning laws in your area.
Zoning regulations exist to protect a community and neighborhoods from unwanted development. For instance, in my neighborhood, local restaurants may not obtain a liquor license if the restaurant is within 500 yards of a public school. Problems may arise when music teachers are unaware of the laws and find their ability to teach in their studio is threatened. Depending on the zoning regulations, the following questions may arise:
- Because of the limit to the number of students allowed in the home, can you teach group classes?
- Are you allowed to hire a teaching assistant who does not live in your home? In other words, does your city regulate that only those residing in your home can work in your music studio?
- Are you allowed to expand your music studio by renovating your home to add an extension or separate entrance?
- Is there a noise ordinance in place that would prohibit you from teaching?
- Is street parking allowed?
- If you teach group classes, will the extra traffic be considered a safety hazard?
- Are you allowed to put a sign in your yard?
- How early and late can you teach?
I have personally experienced how important it is to follow the zoning regulations in my own city. After having taught in my home for several years, a new neighbor moved into the home across the street from me. The neighbor was unaware that I was a music teacher and when school started, she saw that there were parents coming and going from my home before and after school every day. Often parents attend the lessons, so there would also be a car parked in front of my house for thirty to sixty minutes during the lesson. She was not happy that these parents parked on the street across from her driveway and complained that it made it more difficult to back out. She would even approach the parents and tell them to park elsewhere. Despite her multiple complaints to the city, the complaints were unfounded because I was following the zoning regulations. No students were arriving before 7AM for lessons and there was at least 30 feet from her driveway to a parked car. (The city requires 25 feet between a parked car and a driveway entrance.) I found that with a different neighbor, a little advanced communication went a long way. She really appreciated it when I let her know when I would be having increased traffic and parking on the street due to a recital held in my studio.
There are more things to consider besides zoning laws and business licenses, such as Homeowner Associations (HOA), codes, covenants and restrictions (CC&Rs), and ordinances that might restrict your right to teach in your home.
A colleague in my local MTA association shared an experience of how the HOA ordinances adversely affected her ability to open her home-based piano studio. This colleague purchased a beautiful condominium with the intent of teaching her students in her new home. After she had signed the mortgage and moved in, she learned the condominium HOA regulations expressly prohibited operating a home-based business in this community. This prohibited her from running a piano studio in her home. Consequently, she was forced to adapt her teaching location and now travels to students’ homes.
Since the rules and regulations for each HOA are unique, it is important to research in advance to learn the HOA's rules and if there are any restrictive CC&Rs. In most cases, ignorance is not a valid excuse, and you may be penalized with fines, or you could even be forced to close your music studio.
Business Licenses and Zoning Regulations are in place to protect those in a community. It is always best to understand and comply with both the city and community regulations where you teach to avoid costly fines and complaints from unhappy neighbors. Researching and understanding the requirements regarding licensing, as well as the zoning regulations, will help you to have the best chance for success in your home-based music studio.
For additional information on business licenses, zoning and ordinances:
Fontinelle, A. (2021, May 14). 9 Things To Know About Homeowners Associations. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/mortgages-real-estate/08/homeowners-associations-tips.asp
Klingenstein, B. G. (2005). Ignorance is Not Bliss. American Music Teachers, (April/May 2005). https://www.mtna.org/MTNA/Business_Resources/Legal_Resources/Resources/2005_AM.aspx
Klingenstein, B. G. (2009). The Independent Piano Teacher's Studio Handbook. Hal Leonard.
MTNA. (n.d.). A Quick MTNA Guide for Zoning Issues. https://www.mtna.org/downloads/MembersOnly/ZoningGuide.pdf
U.S. Small Business Administration. (n.d.). Apply for Licenses and Permits. https://www.sba.gov/business-guide/launch-your-business/apply-licenses-permits
U.S. Small Business Administration. (n.d.). Pick Your Business Location. https://www.sba.gov/business-guide/launch-your-business/pick-your-business-location
Vozza, S. (2021, January 26). What You Should Know About Zoning Laws. https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/what-you-should-know-about-zoning-laws
Heather Smith, NCTM, maintains a multi-faceted career as a music educator, administrator, and community arts advocate. She is an examiner for the RCM Certificate Program and has degrees in both music and business.