About Doing Business in Somerville
We're here to help you start, expand, or improve your Somerville-based business. The Economic Development Department is happy to help you navigate the process of getting your business up and running with all the necessary licenses and permits. We’re also able to help you find real estate within the city and connect with financial or technical assistance resources to ensure you’re off to a strong start.
Starting a Business in Somerville
Key Licenses & Permits
Starting a Business in Somerville
We know it can be stressful and confusing to start a business. We're here to help! Check out some helpful resources, programs, and links below, including a step-by-step online guide to help get you started. You can also view the PDF version of this guide if you prefer.
Creating a Budget and Business Plan
A business plan is an important document that can help you make strategic decisions and communicate your business’s strengths when applying for financing. A budget and business plan should take into account:
- Startup costs, including licenses and fees
- A budget for long-term operation
- A marketing strategy
- Research into competitors in the area
Finding the Right Location
Using what you developed in step one, start strategizing about where you would like to be. Where does your target customer already hang out? What kind of foot traffic do you need to make your business plan work? Once you determine what kind of location you are looking for, it will be easier to hone in on a particular property. Fill out our SiteFinder form if you'd like us to help you find some potential locations.
Once you find a building that meets your criteria, there are a few important steps to consider before you sign a lease:
- Check with the City to see whether your business is already allowed at that location. If it isn’t, you will need to apply for a Special Permit, which is typically a four-month process. A Special Permit starts at $460, but increases based on the type of permit and project.
- Consider what improvements the building may need before you can open for business. Constructing new walls, installing signage or awnings, and other renovations always require building permits from the City; see step four for more details.
- Depending on how the building was used before and what kind of business you are opening, there might be other changes required—for example, you may need to make the building accessible to wheelchairs or add a new bathroom. See step five for more details about what licenses are required so that you can better understand what will be required of your business before it opens.
- If the building you are considering is in a historic district, some renovations may not be allowed at all.
- We highly recommend hiring a lawyer to review your lease before you sign it. An unfavorable lease may require you to pay for repairs or trap you in a location.
Securing Financing for Your Business
There are a few ways to finance your business:
- Friends, family, and personal savings
- Crowd-sourced funding through a platform like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter
- Bank loans and government-backed loan programs from the Small Business Administration
- Microloans from a provider like Accion or the Bentley Microfinance Group
First-time business owners sometimes have difficulty accessing traditional bank loans, and find that they must depend on other financial sources.
Making Physical Improvements
After you’ve signed your lease and you’re ready to renovate your building for your business, the licensed professional doing the design and construction will need to submit plans and required documents to the City’s Inspectional Services Department, Building Division. These documents must include scaled drawings showing the extent of work to be performed and information about the existing and proposed use of the building.
Constructing new walls or other basic renovations will require a building permit. If you are installing signage or awnings that are different in design or technology from what is currently on the building, you will need to pursue separate permits for these.
In addition, if you are changing the use of the building from what it was before you moved in, there might be other changes you are required to make depending on what kind of business you intend to open. For example, you may need to make the building accessible to wheelchairs or add a new bathroom. See step five for more details about what the licenses your business may need so that you can better understand what these licenses will require of your business before you can open.
The cost of these permits varies greatly depending on the size of the building and the type of work being done.
- Building Permit: For every $1,000 you intend to spend on the building improvements, you will be charged $20 for the building permit.
- Plan Review Fee: For every $1,000 you intend to spend on the building improvements, you will be charged $4.
- Zoning Approval: For every $1,000 you intend to spend on the building improvements, you will be charged $1.
- Other permits and fees may apply.
Licensing and Permitting
Once you have decided your location and business structure, you will be ready to register your business. All businesses must:
- Decide the structure of the business. Should you be a sole proprietor? An LLC? A corporation? The Small Business Administration compares the different options on its website, sba.gov. Once you decide, you will be able to determine what formal paperwork, if any, is required and file it with the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at sec.state.ma.us.
- File for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), which is also known as a Federal Tax Identification Number, and is used to identify a business entity. This can be done for free at irs.gov.
- File a Business Certificate (also known as a Doing-Business-As or DBA Certificate)with the Somerville City Clerk. If you are doing business under a business name, like Pete’s Bagels, and not your legal name, like Pete Smith, you will need to file a Business Certificate. Contact: Peggy Piwinski at [email protected] or 617-625-6600, ext. 4106.
- Some businesses—like restaurants, food trucks, garages, bars, gas stations, hotels, and many others—require additional licenses and permits, either from the City of Somerville or the state. Depending on the type of license required, it could take two to four months to acquire. The cost of these licenses and permits vary widely depending on which ones are required and the square footage of your business.
Staying in Business
Don’t forget to renew any registrations, licenses, or permits when required. For example, your Business Certificate needs to be renewed once every five years, and many other licenses must be renewed annually.
In addition, if you decide to make any changes to your business—keeping your business open late at night, serving alcohol, providing outdoor seating—you may require additional permission from the City.
For more information about whether you need a new license, contact John Long, City Clerk, at [email protected] or 617-625-6600, ext. 4110 before you make any changes.
Key Licenses & Permits
Please note: while the words 'license' and 'permit' are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. In the City of Somerville, permits are often required before an activity can begin (a building permit, for instance), whereas licenses allow the holder to perform a specific regulated task (such as serving alcohol). Permits include Building Permits, Plumbing Permits, Electrical Permits, Certificates of Inspection, Certificates of Occupancy, and Construction Dumpster Permits. Licenses include Public Event Licenses, Temporary Food Permits, Dumpster Licenses, and Food Establishment Licenses.
To apply or renew business licenses and permits, visit the City's CitizenServe web portal. CitizenServe makes it easy to determine what permits and/or licenses your business needs and helps you apply for/renew them.
Anyone seeking to to construct, reconstruct, alter, repair, or demolish a structure or install a sign must first obtain a building permit. Before any work starts, a building permit must be obtained and prominently displayed at the job site. For more information about building permits or to apply for a permit or license, visit the City's CitizenServe web portal.
The Health Division works closely with the Health Department and the Board of Health and is responsible for the issuance and renewal of health-related licenses as well as responding to tenant complaints regarding violations of health codes. A health license is required for any business related to body art, retail space, food establishments, permanent on-site dumpster use, removal and disposal of trash from dumpsters, and other health-related commercial licenses. To apply or renew a health license, visit the City's CitizenServe web portal.
In order to distribute or sell alcoholic beverages in Somerville, you must first obtain a license. There are a variety of alcohol licenses. To determine which your business needs, view the Licensing Commission Rules and Regulations or view the application on the City's CitizenServe web portal.
Outdoor Seating License
If your business wishes to place any article or structure such as tables and chairs, on or over a street or sidewalk, you must first obtain an Outdoor Seating Permit. To determine whether your business needs an Outdoor Seating Permit, see the Clerk's website.
Signage or Awning License
If your business wishes to to install any sign or awning over a public way in Somerville, a license is required, even one mounted flush against the side of a building, if that sign or awning would land on a public sidewalk if it were to fall straight down. The Sigange or Awning License Application is availble on the Clerk's website.
See Assistance for Businesses to learn more about City-sponsored support for your business.
Networking and Advocacy
- East Somerville Main Streets: Organizes events, connects member businesses to resources, and helps members stay up-to-date on news that affects the East Somerville neighborhood.
- Somerville Local First: Supports locally owned and independent businesses in the City by managing marketing campaigns to support local businesses, providing technical assistance to entrepreneurs, and connecting business owners to each other.
- Somerville Chamber of Commerce: Networking and advocacy for Somerville businesses.
- Union Square Main Streets: Organizes events, connects member businesses to resources, and helps members stay up-to-date on news that affects the Union Square neighborhood.
- Somerville Entrepreneur Network: The City of Somerville Economic Development team and the Somerville Public Library host monthly meetups for aspiring and current entrepreneurs. To receive updates about future events, sign up for our email list.
Business Development & Support
- Nibble Entrepreneurship Program (Somerville Arts Council): These culinary training programs work directly with immigrants to assist them in exploring a culinary career and testing a food business idea. For more information, contact Rachel Strutt at [email protected] or 617.625.6600, x 2985.
- Boston SCORE: Offers free counseling and mentoring to those looking to start or grow a business and free and low-cost workshops on a variety of topics.
- Center for Women in Enterprise: Provides education and technical support for female business owners.
- Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice: Provides legal support and free events for small businesses.
- Massachusetts Small Business Development Center: Provides free, one-to-one business assistance and free or low-cost training programs to prospective and existing small businesses.
- U.S. Small Business Administration: The SBA provides regular trainings, workshops, and other resources to small businesses throughout the nation. There is a regional office and a Boston district office for even more targeted support.
- Direct Install for Small Business (Mass Save): Eversource provides eligible business customers a free energy audit of their facility by Mass Save. The audit will identify energy saving opportunities, and potentially pay for up to 70% of the total cost for retrofitting qualified lighting and mechanical systems. Gas measures will also be addressed. For further information and other small business incentives, please visit Mass Save's website for businesses.
- Disabled Access Credit (U.S. Government): The Disabled Access Credit provides a non-refundable credit for small businesses that incur expenditures for the purpose of providing access to persons with disabilities. An eligible small business is one that that earned $1 million or less or had no more than 30 full time employees in the previous year; they may take the credit each and every year they incur access expenditures. Refer to Form 8826, Disabled Access Credit (PDF), for information about eligible expenditures. Additional information can be found by visiting the American with Disabilities Act website or calling the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 or TTY 800-514-0383..
- Barrier Removal Tax Deduction (U.S. Government): The Architectural Barrier Removal Tax Deduction encourages businesses of any size to remove architectural and transportation barriers to the mobility of persons with disabilities and the elderly. Businesses may claim a deduction of up to $15,000 a year for qualified expenses for items that normally must be capitalized. Businesses may use the Disabled Tax Credit and the architectural/transportation tax deduction together in the same tax year, if the expenses meet the requirements of both sections. For further information, contact the Internal Revenue Service. Additional information can be found by visiting the American with Disabilities Act website or calling the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 or TTY 800-514-0383.
- Federal Tax Incentives for Preserving Historic Properties (U.S. Government): Federal historic preservation tax incentives are available for any qualified project that the Secretary of the Interior designates as a certified rehabilitation of a certified historic structure. For more information, please visit the National Park Service’s website.
- Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (Commonwealth of Massachusetts): The Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax allows the certified rehabilitation of an income-producing property to receive up to 20% of the cost of certified rehabilitation expenditures in state tax credit. For more information, please visit the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s website.
- U.S. Small Business Administration (U.S. Government): The SBA offers many loan programs; the 7a loans and the CDC/504 loans have been useful to a number of business in Somerville. If you are looking to purchase a building or fixed equipment for your business, these loans can provide SBA-guaranteed loans that will drastically reduce the financing costs.