Commercial Magazine

Made for Small Businesses

SBA 504 loans are a path to buy or build the perfect property

By Kurt Chilcott

Many small businesses are at a crossroads. They want to take advantage of low interest rates and a strong U.S. economy to get out of the cycle of leasing, but it is often difficult to find a suitable commercial property to buy. This can pose a problem for commercial mortgage brokers who work with these types of clients.

In many cases, the best alternative for a small business is to build a facility from the ground up. Fortunately, there is an affordable loan option for the small-business owner that is ideally suited for land purchase and construction projects: the 504 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Arizona, like many states, has experienced strong growth during the post-recession recovery, particularly in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The commercial real estate market has been on the upswing with the opening of the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway extension to the west and south of downtown Phoenix. Further out, Deer Valley is seeing some speculative development of industrial-flex properties. And some key retail shopping outlets have been added, including a major renovation of the Scottsdale Fashion Square.

Around the country, many owners of growing small businesses are at a crossroads between finding a larger building to buy or financing the construction of a customized facility

Although mostly positive, the growth has created challenges for small-business owners who are looking to expand. “Existing buildings in the 5,000- to 20,000-square-foot range are hard to find here, and rising construction costs as well as construction timelines give entrepreneurs pause about committing to building something new,” said Michelle Gardner, a Phoenix-based senior vice president with commercial real estate company Kidder Mathews.

“Despite the challenges, a lot of small-business owners are tired of paying rent and are considering buying,” Gardner said. “With the interest rates staying low, purchasing a property or building from the ground up can still pencil out.”

At a crossroads

Around the country, many owners of growing small businesses are at a crossroads between finding a larger building to buy or financing the construction of a customized facility. The good news is there is an ideal loan program for small businesses that want to own and occupy a building.

The SBA’s 504 loan program can be used to purchase and renovate an existing building. As a source of financing for land purchases and construction, the program’s flexibility, affordability and terms stand apart from other loan programs. Your client can get a long-term, fixed-rate loan of up to 25 years at less than market rates with only 10% down.

Although SBA 504 construction lending is more complex than financing for a straight purchase of commercial real estate, it is worth your time to get to know this program. This is especially true if you are active in growing areas like Phoenix where there’s a tight supply of smaller commercial properties. If you take some time to learn the process, you’ll be able to advise your borrower, manage expectations, expedite faster approval from the SBA and ultimately receive your commission within a reasonable time.

SBA 504 explained

SBA 504 loans are good options for companies that plan to own and occupy a building for at least seven to 10 years. To qualify for an SBA 504 loan, companies must be for-profit enterprises, have a net worth of less than $15 million and have average annual net profits of less than $5 million. Franchise businesses also are eligible, and may qualify for expedited loan approval if they are listed in the SBA franchise directory.

Construction projects are especially complex. First, advise your borrower to assemble a construction team early in the process. Your client will need to hire an architect to develop preliminary plans and specifications for the new facility. With initial plans in hand, the small-business owner can interview general contractors and secure bids for comparison. Some contractors have architects on staff, providing a one-stop shop of sorts for small-business owners. It also can be helpful to refer your clients to architects and general contractors that you know from past deals.

Second, it is important for a mortgage broker to do their homework on the main parties involved in financing the loan. The 504 loan is obtained through a certified development company (CDC), a nonprofit organization that is regulated by the SBA and is authorized to help small businesses purchase commercial real estate within a designated area. There are about 260 CDCs in the U.S. Brokers can easily search for CDCs in their state via the National Association of Development Companies. It’s best to work with one that has dedicated, in-house construction financing personnel.

CDCs finance 504 loans in partnership with participating lenders, typically banks. The CDC will finance only up to 40% of the project costs. A bank will cover 50% or more. Your borrower will kick in the remaining 10% downpayment. Although the bank and the CDC work closely together, only the CDC portion of the loan is regulated by the SBA. The CDC funds come from federally guaranteed bonds that are auctioned to investors.

Given that half the funds will come from a bank, you should vet your lender carefully. The lender should have experience in construction financing and be able to produce examples of completed projects

Given that at least half the funds will come from a bank, you should vet your lender carefully. The lender should have experience in construction financing and be able to produce examples of completed projects. Most banks know how to manage depository money and can offer general lending options, but construction lending is a unique skill with its own quirks.

Banks offer different terms, rates and credit parameters. They also have varying requirements for construction loan monitoring, such as employing construction-management companies, or utilizing payment and performance bonds that ensure the job is completed and the subcontractors are paid. You should look for a lender that will be an advocate through the process, not an adversary.

Flexible and affordable

Initially, a bank may recommend the SBA’s 7(a) loan, which also can be used to purchase land and existing commercial buildings. In certain scenarios, however, a 504 loan can be more suitable to a borrower’s needs. Through the combination of the CDC and bank financing, the SBA 504 loan can finance project costs of up to $10 million, whereas the 7(a) program’s financing limit is $5 million for most asset types. The CDC portion of the 504 loan offers a below-

market, fixed rate that is established at the time of funding. In recent months, rates have been exceptionally low, even falling below the 4% threshold this past summer. By contrast, the 7(a) loan is most commonly a variable-rate product that is adjusted quarterly and negotiated with your chosen lender.

The CDC and the bank work together through the financing process. For a loan application to be considered, however, the general contractor’s bid must be complete. The importance of this step cannot be emphasized enough. The SBA uses the bid to generate an appraisal for the project. The agency will not approve the loan, nor will the bank fund its portion of the loan, if a construction bid is not in place.

At the same time the bank funds its portion of the 504 loan, it also will typically approve a bridge loan to cover a funding lag of 45 to 60 days. The CDC portion of the deal is funded after the bank financing. When the CDC money is available, the SBA will pay off the bank’s bridge loan. For construction projects, however, the term of this bridge loan is usually extended for several months to cover the full cost of construction, since the SBA won’t distribute the CDC’s funds until the project is complete.

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Commercial mortgage brokers and their clients often make the mistake of first turning to a bank for advice when a CDC would be a better source of information. The 504 loan program is an excellent option for small businesses trying to own and occupy a building, but you’ll need to educate yourself on the nuances of the program to avoid hiccups and smoothly steer your client through the process.


  • Kurt Chilcott

    Kurt Chilcott is president and CEO of CDC Small Business Finance, a nonprofit certified development company established in 1978. Chilcott is a nationally recognized leader in economic and community development and small-business finance. Under Chilcott’s leadership, CDC Small Business Finance has led the nation in SBA 504 loan production for nearly 20 years. It has leveraged $13.8 billion in small-business loans since its inception.

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