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Computers and high-speed Internet access mean new, better-paying choices for people who want the flexibility and convenience of careers that don't require an office-building cubicle.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

After the birth of her daughter, Carrie Opara knew she didn't want to return to her old job as a mental-health counselor. But finding legitimate work she could do at home was no small feat.

She tried a multilevel marketing plan and wound up in debt. She looked on the Internet and found plenty of scams. Finally, she heard about LiveOps, a Palo Alto, Calif., call center that hired people to work out of their own homes.

Within two years, she was earning about $2,000 a month working 30 to 35 hours a week from her home in Columbia, Md. -- about what she'd made previously as a counselor. Her shifts can be as short as 30 minutes, although she typically works five-hour blocks while her 6-year-old is in school, plus some nights and weekends when her husband, a certified public accountant, can take over child care.

Opara said she still faces the challenges familiar to every working parent: how to work enough hours, spend enough quality time with her family "and still figure out how I'm going to clean my house, make dinner and do the grocery shopping." Not having to commute or pay for child care, however, are big bonuses.

"It's fit in perfectly," Opara said, "and we also like the flexibility."

Technology is opening up new opportunities for parents and others who want to work at home. Finding and landing legitimate, profitable work still isn't easy, but here are a few venues to try:

A call center in your home

You hear a lot about companies routing their customer-service calls to workers overseas, but a less-noticed trend is the growth in home-based call-center workers. The number of such workers in North America has tripled since 2000, according to an estimate by research firm Yankee Group, with more than 670,000 phone agents in the United States and Canada now working at home.

Thanks to the Internet and better call-routing technology, more companies are finding they can outsource their order-taking, sales and problem-solving calls to home-based workers, said LiveOps Chairman Bill Trenchard. LiveOps not only runs an outsource operation, Trenchard said, but it provides technology for companies that want to set up their own home-based call centers.

Home-based workers tend to be better educated and more loyal than their counterparts at traditional call centers, Trenchard said. Most of LiveOps' workers have college degrees -- Opara has a master's -- and turnover is low.

The flexibility that Opara likes also benefits companies. Home-based operators are typically contractors who are paid for each minute spent on the phone, so companies can quickly gear up to meet high demand without having to pay for idle workers during slack times.

The job isn't without drawbacks. Pay usually starts around $8 an hour, assuming you get enough calls, which can come slowly at the beginning, Opara said. The jobs that simply require taking orders often pay the least, while the better-paying jobs typically require that you have sales skills.

Call centers usually have no tolerance for audible distractions, so a crying baby, barking dog or ringing doorbell could get you fired. (Some companies require their workers have dedicated offices with doors to minimize potential distractions.) An operator also needs a dedicated phone line, a computer and high-speed Internet access.

Some call centers that say they are currently hiring include:

* Alpine Access
* LiveOps
* Arise
* West at Home

Start a Web business

Paul and Alison Martin, who met while they were students at Stanford University, decided to launch a Web-based baby-product business shortly after the birth of their twins, Ainsley and Sierra. The couple launched Noss Galen Baby in February 2004, just before Paul graduated.

By May 2005, Paul said, the site was profitable enough to support the family.

The Martins had some distinct advantages. Paul had programming and start-up experience from a stint at PayPal, so he built and maintains their Web site. The couple also moved from expensive Menlo Park, Calif., to more reasonable Albuquerque, N.M., which keeps down their living costs.

Perhaps even more significant, the Martins were able to capitalize their business with stock-option money from Paul's time at PayPal. But Paul said initial inventory costs were just a few thousand dollars, and he could have gotten a small-business loan or worked a part-time job to keep the venture going until profits came in.

"The most important thing is to have the mindset that you're going to make it work, that you're going to learn from your mistakes," Paul said. "It may take longer than you think. . . . There were difficult times when we were wondering if we were ever going to turn the corner."

The Martins' business isn't the only thing that's expanded. The couple are expecting their third child in March.

If you find a concept that works, you might make additional money teaching other people what you know. Tamaira Sandifer of Sacramento, Calif., launched a service called Fun Mail for Kids that sends customized packets, complete with stickers, personalized letters and crafts projects, to kids via the U.S. mail. Once that was a hit, she wrote an e-book, available for $25 on her site, to teach others how to run similar businesses on the Web.

As with any small business, it can help to draft a business plan. The U.S. Small Business Administration has a free business set-up guide on its Web site.

Online auctions

Online auction sites have helped people do more than empty their attics (or fill them up again). The largest online auction site, eBay, says 1.3 million of its 212 million registered users are "professional sellers" who report the site is a primary or secondary source of income. That's almost double the number of pro sellers from a year earlier.

Barb Webb of Salt Lick, Ky., started her online-auction career a few years ago by selling household items she otherwise would have put in a garage sale. The former corporate executive branched out by looking for bargains at local retailers and then auctioning them off for a profit on the site. In her best year, she cleared more than $10,000 -- not enough to live on but not bad as a part-time job squeezed in between activities for her three kids, now ages 4, 6 and 17.

Auction sites have "how to" sections to familiarize beginners with the selling process, and a little research can help you determine the best way to market your offerings, said Webb, the author of "The Mom's Guide to Earning and Saving Thousands on the Internet."

Sellers also need to be mindful of their reputations because bad feedback from buyers can hurt future sales, she said. Staying organized, using truthful descriptions and shipping items promptly are essentially to a profitable auction business.

Webb also advises newbies to start slowly, particularly if they're buying items with the intent to sell them at auction rather than selling off what they already own. It can be easy to misjudge what people will want to buy, she said, and listing-costs, the site's commissions and buyers who don't pay can eat into profits.

"The best way is to bank some (profits) and then reinvest some," Webb said.

Mystery shopping, survey taking and 'piece work'

Mystery shopping and survey-taking opportunities have been around for a while, but the Internet has made finding them easier, Webb said.

"Mystery shoppers" are typically paid $5 to $100 per assignment to pose as average customers and then critique a store or service, Webb said. The range for filling out surveys or participating in focus groups can be even wider, from a few bucks to a few hundred bucks a shot.

As with other work-at-home jobs, applicants need to be prepared to start small and work their way up. Research companies look for reliable, articulate, detail-oriented people and tend to reward the ones who consistently perform well, Webb said.

Both jobs tend to come with freebies as well as cash. Webb said she's been given such products as free laundry detergent and free diapers in exchange for her opinion on surveys.

Mystery shopping tends to take more time and effort but generally pays more. Webb said she makes about $6,000 a year in cash, plus free goods and services worth $3,000 to $4,000.

"I work it in with our schedule. I look at the week ahead and think, 'Where do we want to go? What do we want to do?' " she said. "If I need to buy clothes, I'll look to see if they need a mystery shopper."

Some Internet-based mystery-shopping services include:

* Corporate Research International Mystery Shops
* Mystery Guest
* Service Intelligence Experience Exchange

National survey companies with an Internet presence include:

* American Consumer Opinion
* National Family Opinion
* Survey Savvy

"Piece work" is an age-old concept that's been updated by the Internet, most visibly on's Mechanical Turk. The site pays people to perform tasks that computers can't easily do, such as fill out opinion surveys, transcribe audiotapes and see whether items for sale have been correctly "tagged," or classified.

The Mechanical Turk for which the Web site was named was a 1700s and 1800s hoax in which a supposed machine played chess (the Turk actually concealed a human chess ace). Amazon started the site to find humans to help fix problems that its automated systems couldn't. The Mechanical Turk is now used by an array of "requestors" who want people to help them with various small tasks.

The problem here is that the pay is often literally pennies -- sometimes just a single penny to perform a task that might take a few seconds or minutes. Only you can determine whether the time you spend is worth the payoff.

Other home-based businesses

There's not much high-tech about home-based businesses such as child care, house-sitting, dog walking and errand running. But classified advertising sites such as Craigslist and Expo can help you easily and cheaply connect with potential customers.

And old-school businesses, if properly run, can provide a decent living, said Steve Damato, who operates a licensed day-care center with his wife, Jodi, at their Elgin, Ill., home.

"With five full-time kids, one of which is our own daughter, and three part-time kids," Damato said, "we have found an occupation that allows us tremendous flexibility, the luxury of being full-time parents to our daughter, numerous tax benefits, no commuting, no fancy clothes . . . and not to mention a generous income between $50,000 to $60,000 a year."

The Damatos inherited the day-care business from Jodi's mother, who retired last year at 65. The Damatos moved into the mother-in-law's home to look after her and the business. Previously, Steve had worked as a flight attendant while Jodi had been a stay-at-home mother for their daughter, now 4. Besides the opportunity to be a full-time father, he likes the fact that he no longer has to work nights, weekends or holidays.

Before you launch any business, research your community's license and insurance requirements. In Illinois, for example, day-care providers who look after more than four children must be licensed, Steve Damato said, and the state provides about 30 pages of standards that centers must follow, covering everything from the number of electrical-outlet covers to the frequency of CPR training.

Damato also recommends talking to others who run similar businesses for tips and advice. You also need to gauge your own aptitude for the work.

"If you don't like changing 20-30 diapers a day or constantly wiping noses, or playing referee throughout the day, then this job is not for you," Damato said. "Otherwise, this could be a wonderful opportunity . . . for many couples."

Keys for the home-based worker

As you're considering potential work-at-home opportunities, keep these points in mind:

Your best opportunities may be close to home. If you're still working, rummage around your current workplace to see if any job -- not just the one you're doing now -- is portable. You might hit pay dirt if you're well-regarded and your employer has work that's not getting done or not being done well. A written plan explaining your proposal may help you sway your employer.

Otherwise, expect a lot of competition. Plenty of people want to work from home and will inundate any company they think might hire them. (One call-center company I tried to interview for this article wouldn't even talk to me, saying it already had far more applicants than it could use and didn't want another spike in inquiries that it couldn't handle.)

Don't expect to make a fortune. The sure sign of a scam is a promise of huge rewards for little effort. The real world doesn't work like that. If you have to pay big upfront fees for materials, details or training, your best bet is to walk away. Ditto for any "opportunity" that involves stuffing envelopes or assembling crafts; these activities profit only the promoters.

The folks I interviewed who are making decent money at home also made decent money in the regular workplace world. They tended to have good educations, strong business skills and a history of workplace success. If you're organized, focused, a self-starter and possessed of in-demand skills, you could do OK at home. If you're not, your options are likely to be more limited.

Liz Pulliam Weston's column appears every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money.


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