You may think that the adorable little shop on the corner of your favorite street or that huge warehouse in the suburbs is the perfect place to set up your business, but don't sign that rental agreement just yet. Local zoning laws, also called land-use regulations or ordinances, prohibit certain business activities from being conducted in specific locations.

Zoning laws are typically created and enforced by local government agencies, including your county, city or township. In most areas, you'll find five main zones: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational. They all come with their own sets of guidelines governing a broad range of variables, including building specifications and appearance, sign appearance and size, water and air quality, noise, parking and traffic, the use of hazardous materials, waste management, etc.

Furthermore, many localities place restrictions on the number of total businesses that can move into an area. Some even go as far as to limit the number of similar businesses. This means that if you want to open a salon in an area that has reached its limit of allowable salons, you will have to move elsewhere.

If you operate out of your home, you may be obligated to follow a whole different set of zoning laws, including limits on the percentage of your home that can be used for the business.

While zoning laws can prove to be a headache for some small business owners, they are designed to protect the health, safety and sanity of the community. Imagine a shooting range or wild nightclub moving into your quiet neighborhood; you likely wouldn't want either, and so the laws are in place to protect you and other residents.

Zoning ordinances are meant to prevent serious issues that have an adverse impact on an area’s quality of life. These include water and noise pollution, traffic- and parking-related problems, and even activity that might mar the appearance of a neighborhood. They are designed to preserve property values and make the town or city a better place to live, work and do business.

Even if you don't care for zoning laws, don't ignore them. If you violate an ordinance, you could be required to pay steep fines and tear down or renovate any items that don't comply with code. Worse, your local zoning agency may refuse to issue you permits later, even after you are no longer in violation. Do your due diligence, and understand which zoning laws and restrictions apply to you. You should also use the following tips to help you navigate and address zoning-related issues.

1. Don't Rely on Neighbors, Previous Tenants or Owners for Advice 

Too many new business owners make this mistake. Zoning departments are usually just a phone call away, and they should be able to help you in answering any questions you might have.

2. Start With Your Local Planning Commission

A city planning commission is in charge of planning land use and development.You can usually find information regarding your planning commission on your local town or city website. Zoning maps and regulations are often posted online, so you can familiarize yourself with the different zones and laws for the area.

3. Stop by Your County or City Office

In addition to doing your own online research, set up a meeting with a zoning officer to ask questions and clear up any confusion. You can also contact the offices of the mayor, the city attorney or Department of Housing for information.

4. Hire a Local Land Use Attorney

If you want an easy (although potentially expensive) option, an attorney can guide you through the process and ensure that you aren't violating any codes.

5. Learn the Difference Between Zoning and Building Codes

While it’s convenient to pair them in the same expression, zoning codes are different from building codes. Without going into too much detail, zoning codes deal with the location of the business, whereas building codes deal with the actual structures that house the company.