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Do I need to register as self employed?

Yes you must register as self employed with HMRC even if you already file yearly tax returns. Failure to do so could cost you a fine! You can do this online at HMRC: Registering for Self Assessment.
You’ll also have to start paying Class 2 National Insurance Contributions: for more info see Self employed NIC’s.
If your turnover over the next 12 months is likely to exceed the VAT threshold, currently £83,000 (2016-17) then you should think about registering for VAT too. For more info see Should I VAT register?

What’s the difference between bookkeeping and accounting?

Oversimplifying somewhat, bookkeeping records financial transactions whereas accounting analyses summary reports generated from those transactions. So in a sense the accountant starts where the bookkeeper leaves off but in practice there is quite a bit of overlap between the disciplines.
Don’t use an accountant just to do your books! Use a bookkeeper because they charge less but for some tasks, such as a company audit, you have to use an accountant.
For more info see What is bookkeeping?

Can I claim for expenses etc incurred prior to trading?

Yes startup costs including the purchase of assets and sundry pre-trade expenses are all perfectly allowable expenses that you can use to reduce your profit. As with all purchases and expenses make sure you keep the invoices and till receipts for proof. Analyse the expenses as usual and enter them into the books as though they all occurred on the first day of trading.
For assets bought prior to trading eg a car, you put the value in the books under capital introduced † and then claim capital allowances on them eg yearly Writing Down Allowances (WDA’s).
There’s about a seven year time limit on this pre-trade stuff but making it seem believable is probably your biggest hurdle as HMRC could try to construe equipment you already own as being part of a hobby rather than capital expenditure per se.
† Technically speaking you should credit capital introduced and debit equipment purchased by the same amount. This so called contra entry reflects the fact that your bank balance is unchanged by the introduction of capital assets to the business in the form of equipment.

Can I claim for use of home?

Yes but check out the example scenarios at HMRC: BIM47825 – Specific deductions: use of home: examples for clues as to what you can most likely get away with. See also GOV.UK: Simplified expenses if you’re self-employed.
If you own your own home and claim use of home business expenses then you may be liable for Capital Gains Tax (CGT) when you sell your home. This is because part of your home is being used for business purposes and therefore not solely a private residence. But so long as that part of your home is not being used solely for business purposes you should be OK eg if the room you use as your office doubles as a guest room.
See HMRC: Capital Gains Tax relief on your own home: Using your home for business purposes.
For more on the tax implications of working from home see Business Link: Tax considerations of working from home.
See also No (allowable) expense spared.

Is a business loan an allowable expense?

Well, the interest payments are an allowable business expense on a loan that is exclusively for the business. This apples to credit card fees too ie they must be exclusively incurred through business expenditure.
For more detail see Business Link: Claim loan interest against tax.
For general info on allowable expenses see No (allowable) expense spared.

Should allowable expenses include VAT?

Not if you are VAT registered, otherwise yes.
See A simple bookkeeping system and No (allowable) expense spared for more detail. See also Should I VAT register?

Should I charge VAT on postage and packing?

If you are VAT registered then yes. Whilst Royal Mail postal services are exempt from VAT your provision of a postage and packing service to your customers is not. Therefore you have to charge VAT on whatever you charge for delivery. Think about it in terms of what you are charging for this service rather than merely what it costs you in stamps that are confusingly VAT exempt.
For (a lot) more detail see HMRC: Postage and delivery charges.

Is there a freeware alternative to Excel?

There is indeed a perfectly viable freeware alternative to Microsoft Office in the form of OpenOffice.org which includes a spreadsheet package comparable to Excel in terms of functionality at least. The differences lie in the user interface and macro scripting language. Many spreadsheet users eschew the use of macros anyway as they can be used to do nasty things to your computer. The user interface whilst not literally identical to Excel does give access to very similar functionality. Furthermore OpenOffice.org can read and write Microsoft Office files. Read the review and get download links from CNET: OpenOffice.org.
Google Docs also includes a spreadsheet app for those who prefer to keep their data in the cloud. It’s great because you can access your data from anywhere but not so great when you don’t have access to WiFi. But why not use both? Apparently OpenOffice.org and Google Docs can work pretty well together: import, export and even synchronisation.
That said, I wouldn’t store sensitive or mission critical data in Google Docs but maybe that’s just personal prejudice rather than prudence. Either way I’d research the security implications thoroughly first.

Can you do my books and tax return for me?

Yes! Please check out my services and feel free to contact me to see if I can help.

Got a burning question?

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