Discover the “Forgotten” SBA Program Worthy of another Look
Much has been written on these pages in the past two years about a little understood and even less used commercial real estate loan program called the 504. As our lending firm was the first and is still the only nationwide commercial lender to exclusively focus on only this loan product, I’d like to succinctly put to rest some of the more common misconceptions about this terrific loan product. Rather than waste anymore ink, let’s get right to issue at hand . . .
Who Uses It?
The 504 loan is for commercial property owner-users. It is not an investment real estate loan product per se. Borrowers of 504 loans must occupy at least a simple majority (or no less than 51%) of the commercial property within the next year in order to qualify. Two operating companies can come together to form an Eligible Passive Concern (EPC) (otherwise known as a Real Estate Holding Company, typically as an LLC or LP), however, to take title to the commercial property. In other words, a 504 loan doesn’t have to be just one small business owner purchasing his commercial property. It could be a physician and an accountant each utilizing 3,000 square feet in a 10,000 square feet office building (at 6,000 total square feet in their LLC, they would occupy 60% and be eligible) for example. Additionally, at least 51% of the total ownership of the Operating company(ies) and EPC must be comprised of U.S. citizens or resident legal aliens (those considered to be Legal Permanent Residents) to qualify.
There are no revenue restrictions or ceilings for 504 loans, but there are three financial eligibility standards unique to them: operating company(ies’) tangible business net worth cannot exceed $7 million; operating company(ies’) net income cannot average more than $2.5 million during the previous two calendar years; and the guarantors/principals’ personal, non-retirement, unencumbered liquid assets cannot exceed the proposed project size. These three criteria usually do not disqualify the typical, privately-held small to mid-sized business owner; only the absolute largest ones get tripped-up on these. Last fiscal year (October 1, 2004 to September 30, 2005), nearly 8,000 business owners used 504 loans for over $11 billion in total project costs representing a recent five-year growth rate in the program of 22% year-over-year.
Why Use It?
These loans are structured with a conventional mortgage (or first trust-deed) for 50 percent of the total project costs (inclusive of: land and existing building; hard construction/renovation costs; furniture, fixtures and equipment [FF&E]; soft costs; and closing costs) combined with a government-guaranteed bond for 40 percent. The remaining 10 percent is the borrowers’ equity and is usually a third to half as much as traditional lenders require. This lower equity requirement lowers the risk for small business owners as opposed to lowering a lender’s risk profile with more capital injected into the project like with ordinary commercial lending. It also allows the small business owner to better utilize their hard-earned capital, while still getting all of the wealth-creating benefits commercial property ownership provides.
Unlike most commercial bank deals, these loans are meant to finance total project costs as opposed to a percentage of the appraised value or purchase price, whichever is less. The first mortgage (or trust-deed) is typically a fully amortizing, 25-year term at market rates, while the second mortgage (or trust-deed) is a 20-year term, but with the interest rate fixed for the entire time at below-market rates. The second mortgage (trust-deed) on 504 loans is guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and is, contrary to popular belief about SBA loan programs, the cheapest money available for typical small business owners. For most of the past two years, the SBA bond rate hovered near six percent fixed for 20 years, which is an incredible deal for any small to mid-sized business owner and very tough to beat. Not only do these loans provide better cash flow for borrowers (by borrowing at better rates and terms), but they also provide the highest cash-on-cash return available in the commercial-mortgage industry which is a financial metric used by most successful real estate investors. Furthermore, these loans are assumable should borrowers decide to sell their property in the future, but a better strategy for most small business owners would be to sell their operating company while keeping their EPC and cashing rent checks long into their retirement.
Why You May Not Know Much about These Loans?
Many bankers and brokers don’t like to offer 504’s because they fundamentally are smaller loan amounts for the bank (typically only 50% first mortgages or trust-deeds versus the common 80%), which means a banker has to work that much harder to bring in more assets and the smaller loan amounts also hit the typical commercial loan officer right in the pocketbook. They would rather discuss the SBA’s more notorious 7(a) loan program, which has a well-established, if not egregiously well-paying secondary market (due to Prime-based, floating rate pricing) already in place, when the issue of low down-payment commercial loans comes up. When you couple those two reasons with the fact that these 504 loans take more effort and skill only on the part of the lender, it’s no wonder this loan product has only recently started to catch fire in the marketplace.
So what are Some Common Questions about These Loans?
Isn’t There Tons of Paperwork Involved?
This was certainly the case years ago, but it is no more. With the advent of more and more specialty lenders and the recent focus on streamlining the SBA application process, 504 loans are no more involved than most ordinary commercial loans. While the documentation is specific and detailed, most small business owners are ably organized and prepared when the alternative is to pay two to three points higher in interest rates with no documentation or stated income commercial loans.