Business loans are often an important part of launching and growing a small business. However, it can be easy to get in serious trouble when taking on debt. Some lenders may include terms and hidden fees in loan agreements that cause debt to balloon and could put your business in serious financial trouble.
By closely reviewing loan agreements a lender offers (along with having an attorney or accountant review them), you can arm yourself against an unfair repayment program. Know your loan repayment options and when it's time to seek funding elsewhere. This guide will introduce you to the concept of business loans as well as outline certain terms and fees to look out for.
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How does business loan repayment work?
So you need a business loan. The process begins with a loan application, generally submitted to a bank, credit union or private lender. The lender then considers the borrower's application, often assessing factors like income, credit score, cash flow, cash reserves and collateral, when applicable. Based on these factors, a lender might approve a borrower's application and extend a certain set of terms: A lender offers X dollars at Y interest rate over Z months or years.
"Once funds from an approved loan are disbursed, interest begins to accrue immediately and is usually expected to be paid monthly," said Larry Fuschino, owner of Raider Consulting. "Principal of the loan is to be repaid based on the terms of the loan, which can vary with each situation and borrower. However, these terms will be disclosed in the documentation provided by the lender."
There is more to it than that. In addition to the principal, interest rate and repayment term, many lenders include other fees and terms in their loan agreements. For entrepreneurs, it is crucial to understand every aspect of the agreement before accepting a loan, as they can sometimes contain gotchas that can lead to significant expenses.
What is a loan repayment term?
One of the most important elements of a loan is the repayment term, which is the amount of time it will take to fully repay the loan debt and the interest associated with it. In some cases, the loan can be repaid before it reaches maturity; in other cases, borrowers face a steep penalty for doing so.
"The repayment term is also known as the loan period, or the duration of time over which the borrower will complete repayment of the loan to the lender," said Jared Weitz, founder and CEO of United Capital Source.
The terms can vary by nature of the loan. However, the repayment term and whether you have the option to repay the debt early without penalty are key factors in determining whether a business loan is right for you.
Loan term vs. loan period
Whereas your loan term is the entire duration over which you repay your loan, your loan period is the amount of time that passes between payments. For example, if you make monthly loan repayments over five years, your loan term is five years and your loan period is one month.
You'll also see "loan period" used to describe the time of year during which a loan is available, but this definition is less pertinent to small businesses.
Loan repayment terms by type
Loan repayment terms vary drastically. Review the standard financing terms of each type to determine which one works best for your business. A good idea for any type of loan is to calculate the total loan cost. The total loan cost reflects how much you pay in full at the end of the terms.
The following are examples of some of the most common types of loan repayment policies.
Term loans follow a set repayment schedule. The bank or lender provides you with a specific amount of time to pay back the loan. For instance, you may have a total of fixed monthly payments to make over the course of five years. After five years, as long as all payments are made, the loan is paid in full. Term loans often have a fixed interest rate agreed upon at the start of the loan. However, variable interest rates can also apply to term loans.
There are subcategories of term loans. Term loans are separated into short-, intermediate- and long-term loans. Short-term loans usually require repayment within 12 to 18 months. Intermediate-term loans range from one to three years. Long-term loans' repayment periods range from three years up to 25 years.
Among private term loan providers, small businesses may benefit the most from SBG Funding and its flexible loan payment terms. Your SBG Funding loan term can be as short as six months or as long as five years. Learn more in our SBG Funding review.
Loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration have specific repayment terms. The maximum loan amount for the standard program from the SBA is $5 million. Interest rates are variable based on the lender, but they must not exceed the maximum amount permitted by the SBA. For example, the SBA states that loans over $50,000 must not have a prime interest rate above 2.25% if the term is less than seven years. SBA loans are subject to a higher interest rate if the funds are being borrowed for more than seven years. For instance, loans over $50,000 with a repayment date of more than seven years have a maximum interest rate of 2.75%.
The loan terms for SBA lending programs depend on how you plan to use the funding. For working capital and daily expenses, you must repay the loan within seven years. For any equipment purchases, the loan terms are up to 10 years. If you plan to use the SBA loan for a real estate purchase, your business has up to 25 years to pay back the loan.
Although SBA loans are government loans, many private companies excel at helping small businesses find them. One such lender is Truist, which offers loans with terms spanning five to 25 years. Learn more in our review of Truist.
Merchant cash advances
Merchant cash advances are ideal for businesses that rely on credit card and debit card sales. Funding is provided upfront in exchange for a percentage of the company's future sales. Merchant cash advance terms are short, with repayments usually made within three to six months. Terms for merchant cash advances are typically faster depending on your business sales. Payments for merchant cash advances could happen daily. For instance, payments may be 10% total of your daily credit card sales.
Microloans offer a short-term option for financing. The maximum time frame is six years, but most loans require repayment in three to four years. The maximum amount for a microloan is $50,000, according to the SBA. Interest rates for microloans are established by the current rates set by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
In the case of microloan provider Accion, microloans also open you up to one-of-a-kind, customizable loan repayment terms. When you choose Accion for your microloan, you and the company will work together to craft unique loan terms that work for you. Learn more in our Accion microloan review.
Business lines of credit
Business lines of credit provide you with a predetermined amount of money you can use for your business. Instead of paying interest on the total amount, interest is applied to how much is utilized. Business lines of credit work similar to credit cards, so there's not a set repayment date given.
Invoice financing works as an advance against any unpaid invoices your business may have. Invoices are submitted to the lender, and the company provides you with the amounts of each invoice minus any interest fees. These loans are short term and usually paid off within three months after invoices are paid by clients.
How long can you finance a business loan?
Whether you need a long- or short-term business loan, there is likely a financing option out there that suits your business. Conventional business loans tend to have longer repayment terms and lower interest rates, while short-term loans often come with higher interest rates.
It also depends on your financing partner. Conventional lenders like banks and credit unions, for example, will likely have different types of business loans available than private lenders, who are generally more flexible but also more expensive.
"The term of a business loan is usually matched to the underlying reason for it," Fuschino said. "If a business needs to buy a new warehouse, the term of the loan could be five to 15 years. If the business needs to buy extra inventory to be sold during the next season, the lender may only allow a three- to six-month term."
Some business loans have even longer repayment terms, stretching to 25 or 30 years, much like a home mortgage. Before committing to a long-term loan, you should have a plan in place to meet the monthly payments. A loan is a big commitment; while the funding might be necessary to grow your business successfully, it should never be taken lightly.
Is a loan repayment tax deductible?
Many entrepreneurs wonder if loan repayments are tax deductible. For small business owners, loan payments may feel like a business expense. While you can deduct interest payments from your taxes (interest is, after all, the cost of borrowed money), the principal value of the loan is not deductible.
"The interest paid on the loan is usually considered an accounting expense," Fuschino said. "It is usually a tax-deductible expense as well, but be sure to discuss this with your accountant [or] tax preparer. Principal payments are a cash outflow but not considered an accounting or tax expense."
Can you negotiate your loan repayment terms?
Yes, you can negotiate your loan repayment terms. To do so, you need to research the right lenders for your needs, learn the ins and outs of loan terminology, and gather your paperwork. You should also push for the ability to prepay your loan, while minimizing personal guarantees. Loan prepayment can be an especially helpful inclusion, as it allows you to pay off your loan early before all the interest accrues.
Repayment terms that may be hidden in a business loan
The terms you'll come across in a loan agreement can be vague and confusing. What passes as common terminology for many lenders may be inaccessible jargon to many entrepreneurs. When you need money quickly, it can be difficult to read between the lines, but the devil is in the details. Keep an eye out for the loan repayment terms listed below, which could result in your spending more money on a loan.
Prepayment fees are a notorious gotcha that appears in many business loans. A prepayment fee is incurred if a loan borrower pays off the outstanding balance of a loan prior to the loan's maturity date. Prepayment fees reimburse the lender for lost interest when a borrower pays the loan back early.
"When a loan is paid prior to the repayment period, there is the chance the lender will charge a … fee," Weitz said. "Read through all loan documentation prior to signing to understand whether this fee would be applied in the event you wish to pay off the loan prior to the scheduled completion date."
If possible, avoid taking a business loan that charges a prepayment fee.
Yield maintenance fees
A yield maintenance fee is similar to a prepayment fee. Yield maintenance fees are specific to commercial real estate prepayment fees and can vary depending on several factors.
"Yield maintenance fees are a complex calculation that banks have to calculate for borrowers," said Rob Stephens, founder of CFO Perspective. "Yield maintenance fees are calculated as the difference between the total interest you owe on the remaining term of your current loan and what the bank can earn at current loan rates."
Yield maintenance fees are difficult to waive, even if you refinance your loan, so carefully consider your options before accepting a loan with a yield maintenance fee.
Some lenders might build origination fees into your loan. Designed to cover the costs involved in processing your loan application, these fees are a series of charges related to the underwriting of your loan, the processing of your application, and the application itself.
You might also encounter a fee referred to as "points." Points are essentially an additional percentage of the value of the loan paid above and beyond interest and other fees. Often, points are paid at the end of a loan term. If a lender charges one point on a $100 loan, for example, that equals an additional $1 due on top of the principal and interest payments repaid during the term of the loan.
"Something to remember is that consumer protection regulations at the federal and state [levels] often do not apply to business-to-business transactions," Fuschino said. "Business owners are expected to be sophisticated and able to understand issues and negotiate with lenders as necessary. While online lenders may not negotiate their one-size-fits-all process, business owners may have more success with local lenders."
If you are curious about what additional terms and fees are included in your loan, consult the loan estimate and closing disclosure. This document contains a detailed breakdown of all costs associated with the loan. It is best to have an attorney or accountant review this document before signing the agreement.
Be careful when accepting a business loan
When accepting a loan, you need to be sure you will make payments on time. Never take on debt that you can't service. However, it's also important to be sure you're getting a fair deal. Just because a lender is extending funding to your business doesn't mean they're doing so on fair terms. There is more to a loan than paying the monthly installments. You should closely review any loan agreement before you sign it.
Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.