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A Contractors Guide to Freelancing

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Choosing to become self-employed is a big step and one that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. But it’s definitely becoming an increasingly attractive option, with the ranks of the self-employed rising year on year.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published a report showing that the number of self-employed people has risen from just 3.3 million in 2001, representing 12% of the UK labour force, to 4.8 million by 2017, representing just over 15% of the workforce.

Things to consider before going freelance

Choosing your own hours of work and deciding which projects you’d like to work on may sound like an office worker’s dream, but there are several things to bear in mind before making the leap to become a freelancer.

Keep in mind that you probably won’t make a lot of money in your initial months of trading, so you need to have finances in reserve. And that doesn’t mean just taking care of your rent or mortgage payments and regular bills. You’ll also need to factor in for unexpected events, such as fixing the car or repairs to your boiler.

When you’re employed, your tax and National Insurance payments are taken care of for you. But once you become self-employed, you’ll need to take care of them yourself or pay someone else to.

And unlike paid employees, you won’t qualify for sickness benefit or holiday pay. So you need to make sure that you have sufficient funds to tide you over for any periods where you’re not working or when work is thin on the ground.

Becoming a freelancer

When you decide to go freelance, there are three options available to you. You can elect to become a sole trader, join a business partnership, or you could set up a limited company. The first and third options are the most popular, but it’s important to decide which option is best for you.

As a sole trader, you’ll be personally in charge of every aspect of your business. It’ll be down to you to take care of all your own cash flow, invoicing and bookkeeping. But there’s no real distinction between you and your business, so if you hit any financial stumbling blocks, you could be in trouble.

That’s why many freelancers opt to form a limited company instead. This lets your business operate as a separate legal entity, which protects your own personal finances and assets.

Keeping on the right side of IR35

HMRC takes a very dim view of contractors who use a limited company as a way of working for a single employer without having to pay normal employee rates of tax and National Insurance. If HMRC suspects that contractors are actually paid employees operating under the tax radar, the penalties can be severe. So you need to be very clear of the stipulations of the new IR35 legislation, such as who you are working for, and the reasons why you have become a freelancer.

Contractors working offshore

Many contractors form limited companies to enable them to work offshore, whether on oil or gas rigs or offshore installations, including pipe-laying vessels. Provided that the work undertaken is in UK waters, then normal UK tax rules apply, but the situation becomes more complex when work is carried out outside UK waters.

The majority of offshore workers tend to use accountants to help them with their tax evaluations, as well as assisting with their bookkeeping. Whilst there are some associated costs, unless you’re a tax expert, it’s worth it for the potential sums of money that an experienced accountant can save you.

How to find freelance opportunities

The way in which you market and promote yourself as a freelancer will depend upon the market you’re operating in and the type of work that you do. Now that the workforce is so diverse, self-employed opportunities are available across most industries, with many people making a respectable living from something that started out as a hobby.

If you’re selling a skill, such as writing, drawing or photography, it’s worth looking online for dedicated websites that connect freelancers with available jobs. Sites including PeoplePerHour, Upwork and Contently all offer a variety of freelance jobs, although competition can be fierce.

Most regions of the UK offer networking events specifically designed to connect contractors with clients, so check your local press and websites for local options. It’s worth preparing a stack of business cards that you can distribute at these events – remember to create the right first impression as that can go a long way towards inspiring confidence in prospective clients.

Insurance for freelancers

If you’re working from home, you should examine your home and contents insurance policy in great detail. That’s because items that you use in the course of your work may not be covered under your usual household contents insurance policy, so you might need to take out specialist business insurance.

You might also want to think about other forms of business insurance such as professional indemnity cover and public liability insurance.

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