What to Expect when Applying for a Commercial Mortgage Loan:
Banks and Private Alternatives
Part 1

If you have never borrowed money for your business before, you may be in for a surprise. Whether you want to borrow working capital to expand your business or leverage equity in a commercial real estate venture, you will soon find out the commercial loan process is very different from the more common home mortgage process. Commercial loans, unlike the vast majority of residential mortgages, are not ultimately backed by a governmental entity such as Fannie Mae. Consequently, most commercial lenders are risk-averse; they charge higher interests rate than on a comparable home loan. Some lenders go a step further, scrutinizing the borrower's business as well as the commercial property that will serve as collateral for the loan. This means that the business borrower should have different expectations when applying for a loan against his commercial property than he would have for a loan secured by his or her primary residence.

Following is a list of questions the borrower should ask himself and the lender before applying for a commercial loan.

1. How am I going to meet the loan repayment terms?

Typically, bank loans require the borrower to repay his or her entire business loan much earlier than its stated due date. Banks do this by requiring most of their loans to include a balloon repayment. This means the borrower will pay interest and principal on his 30-year mortgage at the stated interest rate for the first few years (generally 3, 5 or 10 years) and then repay the entire balance in one balloon payment.

Many borrowers do not save enough in such a short time frame, so they must either re-qualify for their loan or refinance the loan at the end of the balloon term. If the business happens to have any cash-flow problems in the years immediately preceding the balloon term, the lender may require a higher interest rate, or the borrower may not qualify for a loan at all. If this happens, the borrower runs the risk of being turned down for financing altogether and the property may be in jeopardy of foreclosure.

A balloon loan has other risks as well. If the borrower's business is in a "risky" industry at the time the balloon is due (think of the oil and gas bust in the 1980s or the telecom implosion of the 2000s), the lender may back out of all refinancing for the enterprise. Alternatively, a lender simply may decide its loan portfolio has too many loans in a given industry, so he will deny future refinancing within that trade.

Non-bank lenders generally offer less stringent credit requirements for commercial loans. Some non-bank lenders will make long-term commercial loans without requiring the early balloon repayment. These loans, which may carry a slightly higher interest rate, work like a typical home loan. They allow a steady repayment over twenty or thirty years. It is often worth paying a one- or two-point higher interest rate for a fixed-term loan in order to ensure the security of a long-term loan commitment.

2. How much can or should I borrow?

Most bank loans prohibit second mortgages, so the borrower should go into the loan process intending to borrow enough to meet current business needs, or enough to sufficiently leverage real estate investments. For a traditional acquisition loan in which the borrower is buying a new property, banks usually require a down payment of 20-25%. So for a $600,000 acquisition, the borrower will need to come up with $120,000-$150,000 for the down payment.

Some non-traditional loans will allow the borrower to make a smaller down payment, maximizing the loan-to-value (LTV) at 85-90%. Such loans are generally not bank loans, but are offered by direct commercial lenders or pools of commercial investors. If the customer wants to borrow the maximum amount possible, the interest rate on such loans may be a point or two higher than typical bank loans. Before deciding how much to borrow, potential borrowers should:

  • Evaluate how much cash they are likely to need
  • Analyze their ability to repay the loan as it is structured

Research has consistently shown that the number one reason behind the failures of most small businesses is the lack of adequate capital to meet cash-flow needs. Because of this it may actually be safer for a small business to leave a larger cushion against unforeseen events by borrowing more money at the slightly higher rate.

The amount of the loan requested has an effect on which commercial lenders will fund the loan. Small businesses borrowing less than $2,000,000 will visit a different pool of potential lenders than those seeking loans of over $5 million. Small business loans are generally made by direct commercial lenders (easily located by internet searches) or by small local banks. Larger loans are generally made by regional banks, and very large loans are made by mega-banks or Wall Street lenders.

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