Inside Jennifer Prell’s house in unincorporated McHenry County is a den with two desks, each with a computer. There also are bookshelves, telephones, a printer, a fax machine and articles about her business on the wall.
She’s operating two businesses out of the house: Paxem, which helps people when moving out of their homes, and Elderwerks, which helps seniors find housing and other services.
She started Paxem 9½ years ago so she could stay home and take care of her children, who now are 17 and 13 years old.
Prell is part of a growing national trend of people running businesses out of their homes. According to Small Business Administration, 52 percent of the 27.9 million small businesses in the country are home-based.
Prell doesn’t have customers come to her home office. Instead, she and her employees go to people’s homes when they call for a consultation.
“There was really no reason to have a retail space, and retail spaces are expensive, and I don’t think anyone would really visit us,” she said.
Saving money on retail space can nurture a startup business.
“I think they’re trying to build a business without using too much of their own personal funds developing it,” Prell said. “It is hard to start a business. If you jump in with both feet and you get a retail space and it doesn’t work, you’re out a lot of money. If you jump in with both feet but you’re still at home, you actually have more time, you have funds that last longer. It gives you enough time to get going.”
“If you’re not selling a [physical] product, it’s better honestly to have a home-based business. You usually go on site and meet people at their business or at their home ... Everyone has Wi-Fi. There’s no reason to meet in the building,” Prell added.
A retail space would need an occupancy permit from the municipality, and there are other investments in setting up the space.
Further encouraging people to run a business out of their own house is the improvement in computer technology.
Sandy Oslance, president of the Algonquin/Lake in the Hills Chamber of Commerce, said home-based businesses are more popular because technology has improved.
Many home-based businesses tend to be service-oriented, such as insurance brokers, financial advisers or Web designers. People who are unemployed may try to start a business based off a specialty or expertise they learned in a previous job, and “they found a niche,” Oslance said.
“Oftentimes they go to clients rather than clients coming to them,” she said.
Oslance said both the slowly recovering economy and people wanting to start their own businesses lead to home-based operations.
Even though home-based businesses are growing, some think there could be more done to allow them to flourish.
Joe Gottemoller, who is running for a County Board seat in District 3, said the county’s rules of not allowing people to use accessory buildings on their properties hinder the possibility of starting a business.
Gottemoller said the rules make it impossible for someone to use an accessory building to store vehicles, such as for a landscape business, unless they have a conditional-use permit.
There is another rule that says only one person other than family members residing in the house can be employed by the business. That rule also hurts business growth, Gottemoller said.
“Look at Apple, Dell, Microsoft ... all started in someone’s house, someone’s basement,” Gottemoller said. “Facebook started in a dorm room.”
“We’ve made it impossible for those to be started,” Gottemoller said. “I’m not saying we’re going to start a Google, [but] we don’t even give ourselves a chance.”
He said many properties in the county, especially around farms or former farms, have accessory buildings that usually are used for farm storage.
“We don’t let people use those unless it’s used for agriculture,” Gottemoller said. “I don’t want someone assembling rocket engines in my neighbor’s [house]. There’s a big difference with someone working at a computer, at home, inventing code ... and because he doesn’t have it in the right room in his house, he’s not allowed to do it.”
Fox River Grove, faced with the controversy of Bettendorf Castle, is looking at regulations for home-based occupations, specifically those that regulate tours.
Cary recently passed regulations that prohibit certain occupations at home, such as selling firearms and operating tanning salons, shooting ranges, fitness facilities, kennels and vehicle sales lots, among others. Previously, the village did not have language that prohibited unique home businesses, such as the sale of firearms.
When Prell looks at the rules set up by the county that protect neighbors, she said they make sense.
“They should protect the neighbors; otherwise, the value of your house goes down even more,” Prell said. “I think they’re fine. I think it’s good they put something in place.”
It would be more of a problem if someone was running an automotive repair shop in his home garage, Prell said.
“There’s a lot of hazardous waste, broken-down cars that are being fixed,” Prell said. “Anything that is detrimental to neighborhood property should be controlled a little bit.”