How Does a Business Loan Work?

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Updated on Tuesday, March 31, 2020

In the course of day-to-day operations, many businesses discover they come up short on the necessary cash to pay expenses, employees and other business costs. To cover this gap, many business owners turn to business loans.

So, how does a business loan work? Business loans can provide much-needed capital to ease cash flow and help businesses stay on top of their bills. Especially helpful during slow seasons, business loans are a tool that business owners can use to keep business operations moving smoothly.

How do business loans work?

Business loans provide business owners with operating capital to pay expenses, payroll and other costs during slow times or when waiting for client payments to come in.

Most business owners rely on one of six types of small business loans to provide the cash they need. Deciding which financing option to choose depends on the individual needs and financial situation of the business. Some business owners need a small infusion of cash they plan to repay quickly, while others need a large amount of capital as well as time to repay that money.

6 types of small business loans

1. SBA loans

SBA loans are guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA). These loans are not offered directly by the SBA but rather through SBA partners, such as banks, that agree to adhere to SBA guidelines for the loans. In general, the money can be used to pay expenses, cover rent or mortgage payments and buy equipment, among other costs. However, some loan programs do set restrictions on what the funds can be used for, so talk with an SBA-approved lender for specific requirements to determine if the loan fits your needs.

Because the SBA backs a portion of the loan, the risk for lenders is reduced, paving the way for them to offer larger loan amounts — ranging from $500 to $5 million — and more favorable terms. In general, SBA loans have lower down payments, do not require collateral and offer low interest rates, typically ranging from 5% to 10% depending on individual factors and financial needs.

Repayment terms are usually dependent on what the loan is used for, with maximum maturities set for SBA loans. For instance, the maximum maturity of a loan used for real estate is 25 years, while the maximum maturity of a loan used for equipment, working capital or inventory is 10 years. Like other loans, payments are usually made monthly.

To be eligible for an SBA loan, a business must:

  • Be located and operate in the United States or its territories
  • Be a for-profit business
  • Meet size standards based on the SBA’s definition of a small business
  • Have an owner who has invested equity into the business
  • Have exhausted all other financing options

2. Term loans

With a term loan, the business borrows a specific amount of money, which it must then repay over a set period of time with interest. These loans can be set up to be paid over the long or short term. The features of each loan, as well as your business needs and financial circumstances, will help determine which loan is right for your business.

Often used to cover equipment purchases or construction costs, long-term loans are paid over anywhere from three to 10 years, and sometimes longer. The interest rates of long-term loans tend to be lower compared to those of short-term loans. However, long-term loans can be harder to obtain, generally requiring collateral to secure the loan, a good business credit history and at least two years in business.

Short-term loans, on the other hand, are typically used to fill the cash flow gap for payroll, purchase office supplies or pay utility bills. They generally require repayment within three to 18 months and typically have higher interest rates. Unlike long-term loans, which may take quite a while to apply for and receive approval for, short-term loans have a much simpler application process that results in quicker funding, even for businesses that may not have a solid credit history.

3. Equipment financing

Equipment financing refers to business loans used to purchase equipment for the business, such as vehicles, commercial kitchens and construction machinery. The equipment itself serves as collateral for the loan, meaning the lender can repossess the equipment if the business defaults.

Business owners repay this loan over an agreed-upon period of time with a relatively low interest rate. Qualifying for equipment financing tends to be much easier compared to other types of business loans because the business does not have to be established for a specific period of time nor does the business owner need valuable assets or excellent credit.

4. Invoice financing

Invoice financing, also called accounts receivable financing, refers to a loan that works like a revolving line of credit. However, instead of basing the loan amount on assets or real property collateral, this financing arrangement is based on a company’s average invoice volume. The lender examines the company’s weekly volume of invoices and then may offer between 70% and 90% of the average invoice volume.

This type of financing often is used to provide needed cash flow that will cover payroll expenses, utility bills or the purchase of office supplies. Business owners are not obligated to take the entire loan amount at one time as with a traditional loan. Instead, they can draw out only the amount of funds needed at any given time, similar to a line of credit.

As with other business loans, invoice financing terms include interest rates and repayment terms. While fees and interest rates vary, companies often charge a processing fee of approximately 3% of the total invoice amount as well as a factor fee based on how long it took the client to pay the invoice. The factor fee usually is taken weekly and equates to approximately 1% of the total invoice amount.

Qualifying for invoice financing typically requires a good credit history as well as a proven record of invoices.

5. Business lines of credit

A business line of credit is a business loan that works like a credit card. Once approved for a predetermined credit limit, business owners can access the cash they need when they need it rather than taking out the entire amount at one time. They can use these funds to cover payroll, hire new employees, purchase goods or even grow and expand their business.

Once the borrowed amount is repaid, the business owner can access the full amount once again. When repaying the borrowed amount, business owners will pay interest only on the amount borrowed. Interest rates on lines of credit can be higher for those with a poor credit history.

Applying for a line of credit is similar to applying for a traditional loan. You’ll need to complete an application, provide financial documents and go through a personal credit check. In addition, you may need to sign a personal guarantee or provide collateral to receive approval.

6. Merchant cash advances

A merchant cash advance provides cash to business owners in exchange for a specific percentage of their future debit or credit card payments. Funds obtained through this financing option often are used to purchase new equipment, obtain seasonal merchandise to supplement regular inventory or even pay for building expansion or remodeling.

With a merchant cash advance, the lender — usually a non-bank lender — issues a set cash amount, and as you process debit or credit card payments, the lender takes a percentage of each payment and applies it to your loan balance. As such, payments are based on daily sales, so your payments will fluctuate based on what those sales are.

Because a merchant cash advance is not a traditional loan, it is not regulated like a regular business loan. Therefore, interest rates can be extremely high. In addition, these companies may start collecting payments — including interest — the next business day after the receipt of your funds. As such, lenders that offer merchant cash advances often seek out businesses with poor credit histories that cannot qualify for other types of business loans.

The high interest rates and frequent payments can be difficult for some businesses to pay as required, driving them further into debt. However, this can be an attractive option for many businesses given approval can happen in as little time as 24 hours.

How to repay business loans

Repayment for business loans depends on the type of loan obtained. You could make payments through installments, or regular payments, made weekly, monthly or even quarterly. Or payments could be made on a revolving basis, meaning you repay what you borrow. In some cases, payments may be taken out per purchase or business transaction.

Here’s how you can expect to make payments depending on which type of business loan you get:

  • SBA loans, term loans and equipment financing: The borrower makes regular payments as agreed upon with the lender. These could be weekly, monthly or quarterly.
  • Invoice financing and business lines of credit: These are revolving financing options, which means you are preapproved for a set amount that you can borrow against. When you repay the amount borrowed, you can then borrow those funds again, and the cycle continues.
  • Merchant cash advances: The borrower repays this business loan by giving the lender an agreed-upon percentage of each debit or credit transaction it completes until the loan has been repaid.

Business loan requirements: How to get a business loan

1. Build your personal and business credit scores

Because business loan requirements may look at both your personal and business credit score, you need to build your credit scores by making regular, on-time payments on your existing loans and credit cards, as well as keeping your debt level low.

2. Research lenders and check requirements

Getting a business loan that’s right for your business means finding a lender and loan qualifications that align with your needs and financial situation. Most business loans require a minimum number of years in business, a good credit score and a strong financial history. Some financing options also require collateral.

With regard to SBA loans, the qualification requirements are a bit different. While SBA loans do take into account a business’s ability to repay the loan, lenders also look at how the business makes money, where it operates and if it meets SBA size standards as a small business.

3. Gather documents

To get a business loan, you typically will need to provide the following documents:

  • Loan application form
  • Resume
  • Business credit report
  • Income tax returns
  • Accounts payable and receivable
  • Financial documents, such as bank statements, balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statements
  • Legal documents, such as articles of incorporation, business licenses, commercial leases, franchise agreements and any contracts with third parties
  • Business plan

4. Provide collateral if necessary

While not all business loans require collateral, for those that do, be prepared to provide a collateral document. This should list the cost or value of all personal and/or business property that you are prepared to offer to secure the loan.

Where to get a business loan

Banks

Large commercial and community banks offer a wide array of business loans, often with terms that fit your needs as well as lower interest rates than other lenders. However, their requirements may be stricter and the application process can be lengthy, requiring a lot of paperwork and documentation as well as a long time for review and approval.

Because they are generally smaller, community banks can sometimes offer more personal service and be more willing to work with a business to get approved for a loan than a larger commercial bank.

Online lenders

Small business loans through online lenders, such as Rapid Finance and OnDeck, often are easier to get approved for because these lenders are more likely to work with borrowers that have less-than-perfect credit, have not been in business for very long and/or don’t have large annual revenues. Additionally, the application process is typically quick, sometimes taking just a day, with funding received in as little time as one to two days after approval.

On the flip side, online small business loans often have higher interest rates, shorter repayment terms and lower borrowing limits than traditional lenders.

Bank lenders backed by the SBA

The SBA works with major lenders, such as Wells Fargo and Chase, to provide loans to businesses at lower rates with long repayment terms. These lenders take on these loans because they are guaranteed by the SBA, which will pay off a portion of the loan should the borrower default. However, businesses must meet a unique set of eligibility requirements to receive an SBA loan, which can be hard to do.

Peer-to-peer lending sites

Peer-to-peer loans are loans between an investor, rather than a bank, and the borrower. Examples of peer-to-peer lenders include Upstart and Peerform.

Peer-to-peer lending can be a good option for new businesses or those with poor credit.

Qualification requirements vary by lender. Upstart, for example, requires a minimum credit score of 600, while Peerform requires a minimum score of 600. It’s important to check with different lenders for exact qualifying requirements.

While approval may be easier, these loans also may have very high interest rates and origination fees.

FAQ and other things to know

Loan approval can range from just a few days when applying with an online lender to one to two months when applying for a term loan through a bank or SBA-approved lender. Loan approval for a merchant cash advance also can be quick, while approval for a line of credit may take a week or more.

Business loan terms vary based on the type of loan you have. For instance, long-term loans may be for up to 10 years, while short-term loans range between three and 18 months. SBA loans also may have long terms, while invoice financing and merchant cash advances have short terms.

The amount of funding that a small business can get varies based on the type of loan and the individual business’s financial standing. Traditional loans can be for very large amounts — the SBA offers loans up to $5 million — while short-term loans, invoice financing and merchant cash advances have much lower borrowing limits. For instance, invoice financing is based on your outstanding invoices, so if you have an average amount of $2,000 in outstanding invoices each month, your loan would be based on this amount.

Getting a business loan that fits your needs depends on a number of factors. Traditional business loans and lines of credit usually require a solid credit history, several years in business and, in some cases, collateral. Other financing options, such as invoice financing and merchant cash advances, are more likely to provide loans to newer businesses and those with less-than-perfect credit.

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