SBA loans are attractive financing options for small businesses — they come with relatively low rates and are available to borrowers who aren’t able to get funding elsewhere. SBA loans tend to be focused on leveling the playing field in small business lending so underserved communities can gain access to capital and get the benefit of business growth in their neighborhoods.
What is the SBA?
The U.S. Small Business Administration is a government agency that assists small businesses throughout the country with business financing, education and technical assistance, federal procurement and advocacy.
A core aspect of its mission is providing small businesses — especially those that find it difficult to borrow elsewhere — with financing options to grow and improve. SBA approves partner institutions to administer loans from $500 to $5.5 million with agency backing to enable businesses to get access to working capital, purchase fixed assets and satisfy many other business needs. The SBA guarantees up to 85 percent of loans, so there is a reduced risk to the lender.
Loans offered through the SBA
There are three main SBA loan programs: the 7(a) loan program, the CDC/504 loan program, and the microloan program.
The 7(a) program provides loans up to $5 million for almost any business purpose, including purchasing equipment, supplies or real estate; refinancing existing debt; and buying or expanding an existing business. These loans come with various fees, including guarantee fees and prepayment penalties under certain conditions, so research the details before applying. Subprograms of the 7(a) loan program are focused on funding specific groups, such as exporters, underserved communities, military veterans and their families; and small businesses owners looking for cyclical working capital.
The CDC/504 program helps businesses buy fixed assets to enable expansion or modernization as a way to assist in community development. Administered by Certified Development Companies (CDCs), these long-term fixed-rate loans are geared toward helping business owners buy fixed assets such as buildings, land, facilities and machinery; or refinance debt in connection with an expansion.
The microloan program provides small loans up to $50,000 and are designed to help small businesses start up and expand. Averaging around $13,000, SBA microloans are targeted to female, low-income, veteran and minority borrowers and are most often used for working capital.
Who sets the interest rate for SBA loans?
The SBA sets permissible interest rates by regulation, as defined in its standard operating procedures and noted in the Federal Register. Lenders in turn decide what rates to charge their borrowers based on the SBA’s parameters. Lenders cannot exceed maximum rates approved by the SBA.
Fixed vs. variable SBA loan rates
It’s important to understand the difference between fixed and variable rates when investigating your loan options.
Fixed rates do not change over the course of a loan — you pay the same amount every month until the loan is fully repaid. From the beginning you know the total interest you’ll end up paying.
Variable rates, also called floating rates, on the other hand, go up and down over the life of a loan as prevailing interest rates fluctuate. The interest rate at the start of the loan may be lower than with a fixed rate, but there’s no guarantee that it will stay that way. These loans usually come with a cap on the interest rate, but that cap is extremely high in relation to typical fixed rates.
The SBA provides fixed and variable rate options. SBA 7(a) loans can have fixed or variable rates, while fixed rates are required on the 504 loan program. Generally, the 504 rate is lower than the 7(a) rate, according to the SBA.
How the SBA loan process works
The SBA does not actually lend money — it works with approved partner lenders, which administer the loans following the parameters set out by the SBA. Because the SBA guarantees a large portion of each loan, its partner lenders are more inclined to take risks on borrowers who may be underserved by commercial lending institutions.
The SBA has specific eligibility requirements for its loans: Borrowers must be a for-profit small business not larger than a certain size. They must do business within the United States, and the business owner must have invested some amount of their own money and/or time into starting and growing the business. The borrower must also have exhausted their options for financing from commercial lenders.
Eligible borrowers approach SBA’s lending partners directly to seek a loan, and the lenders instruct the business owners on what documents and SBA forms are needed to apply. The borrower gets the funding from the partner and pays the money back to the partner on the agreed-upon schedule.
How to apply for an SBA loan
Applying for an SBA-backed loan is similar to applying for any other commercial loan — private lenders who are approved by the SBA set the application requirements and administer the loans. The application process is different from any other commercial loan process in that borrowers must certify that they meet specific eligibility requirements stipulated by the SBA, such as the size of the business and history of unsuccessful attempts to borrow.
The first step in applying for one of these loans is finding a lender approved by the SBA. A good strategy is to consult with your local SBA District Office for referrals and advice. Approach the lender with answers to the following questions:
- What will the loan be used for?
- How much money do you need?
- When do you need the funding?
- How and when will you repay the money?
- What collateral can you offer?
- Can you provide a personal guarantee?
Most SBA loan applications will have to include a statement of purpose, a business plan and several financial statements: a cash flow statement, an income statement, a balance sheet and a personal financial statement. Other documentation will probably be required, including official SBA forms that are required for each loan type. For example, all SBA borrowers will need to submit SBA Form 1919, which provides borrower information for each proprietor, general partner, officer, director and managing member of an LLC. Your lender will be able to tell you exactly what to submit.
The bottom line
SBA loans can be a very good option for business owners who have found it difficult to gain financial support from regular commercial lenders that don’t have the backing of the SBA. Those in communities particularly targeted by SBA loans — such as minorities, women and the military community — may want to look into the possibility of getting funding through one of the SBA programs. Those who do gain SBA-backed funding will enjoy low interest rates to help their businesses grow.