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…
The 504 loan is for commercial property understanding 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.
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.
When all closing costs are considered, 504 loans usually average about 25 to 50 basis points more in total loan fees on an average sized transaction. With stronger borrowers (i. e. better debt service coverage ratios [DSCR], higher personal liquidity, and/or better personal credit scores), these fees can usually be negotiated lower. Most small business owners utilizing 504 loans are willing to pay slightly higher fees, however, in order to receive longer-term, below-market fixed interest rates on nearly half of their deal, while receiving the highest cash-on-cash return from their property. This is exactly the reason my business partner and I chose a 504 loan when plenty of alternatives were available to us. That’s right – we actually have a 504 loan and have been in the shoes of 504 loan borrowers, so i have first-hand experience of using the loan product that we offer.
This is another old relic of the past regarding these SBA loans. Our quickest 504 loan to date took only 35 days from the first phone call to the closing table, and the commercial appraiser ate-up most of those days while we waited. We’ve done countless others in much less than the typical 60 day commercial real estate contract. If a lender claims they need nearly four months to fund a 504 loan, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. Twenty-four to forty-eight hour pre-approvals and four or five-day commitments are becoming the norm with most specialized SBA lenders.
Plenty of 504 loans are approved with start-up borrowers and/or borrowers that don’t have DSCR’s greater than 1. 25 times. While it is true that most 504 loans are for more credit-worthy (usually bankable) borrowers, this is not a necessary condition. Frequently, 504 loan borrowers with lots of experience in a given industry, but no actual ownership experience, will have an easier time securing a 504 loan than a conventional bank loan. Projections-based deals and franchised deals are often great candidates for 504 loans when the project involves commercial property. There are other SBA loan programs that may be a better fit for pure start-ups, as 504 loans do not allow for the financing of working capital, but those other SBA loans can often be used in conjunction with SBA 504 loans.