Most commercial real estate, projects both large and small, will utilize some sort of financing. Investors often use financing to acquire, develop, and reposition properties according to their business plan.
Given the costly nature of most commercial real estate projects. The amount and type of financing a sponsor uses can have a significant impact on the project’s overall returns. While it may seem insignificant on the surface, a small percentage point swing in interest rates, can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments that could otherwise be redirected toward the project (or to investors’ pockets!). Therefore, a sponsor must be aware of all potential financing tools and choose the most appropriate one based on the specific details of the project.
The Most Common Forms of Real Estate Financing
Raising capital for real estate projects is one of the most important jobs of a real estate sponsor. While investors focus on raising equity, the sponsor must also decide how much and what type of debt to use. Below is an overview of the most common forms of real estate financing, including the pros and cons of each.
Traditional Bank Loans
Most real estate sponsors will first pursue financing through a traditional bank. For example Bank of America, Wells Fargo, or JPMorgan Chase. They may also contact more regional or local banks who have specific knowledge of the area real estate market.
Benefits of Traditional Bank Loans
One of the benefits to utilizing a traditional bank loan is that they are highly customizable. These banks provide favorable pricing and can support any type of real estate investment, regardless of the product or business plan strategy. Investors can use them to acquire property, reposition property, or fund wholesale redevelopment and new construction projects. Most lenders will hold the loan (vs. selling on a secondary market), which makes them more amenable to loan modifications as business plans evolve compared to other types of lenders.
Traditional banks usually require a relationship with the sponsor and the team before they finance a deal. People often refer to them as “relationship lenders”. They will usually want the sponsor to have significant equity in the deal (upwards of 35- to 40 percent) to ensure they have “skin in the game”. Depending on the lender, they may accept less equity in exchange for other forms of recourse. However, in exchange, the lender will usually work with borrowers time and time again as the relationship grows and expands.
Due to heavy regulation, traditional banks usually require performance covenants and reporting in their commercial real estate loans. At a minimum, this will require some effort on behalf of the sponsor. Sometimes lenders may reduce the loan mid-term if the borrower fails to meet a performance covenant.
In short, traditional bank loans are a viable solution for nearly any real estate deal. Additionally, they excel when the borrower seeks flexibility and a favorable interest rate. However, with that, comes an active lending partner that will monitor the deal closely. Ensuring all loan obligations are being met.
Agency Loans (Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac)
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are two quasi-public governmental agencies whose primary focus is providing liquidity to the U.S. housing market. This makes agency loans an attractive source of capital for those doing multifamily housing deals.
Agency loans are typically only available for stabilized properties, limiting their widespread use. However, for those looking to finance a stabilized multifamily project, there is generally no better option than an agency loan. Agency loans tend to offer the best terms in the debt markets. Agency loans typically compete with traditional banks, life insurance companies, and CMBS loans. They also often come out on top as the most desirable option based on market and borrowers priorities.
A few benefits of agency loans are that they are structured as non-recourse and offer long-term fixed rates
Benefits of Agency Loans
Agency loans offer several benefits, such as non-recourse structure and long-term fixed rates. They often feature attractive interest-only periods and may offer borrower incentives for affordable housing and especially environmentally-friendly properties.
These generous loan terms come at the expense of flexibility. Agency loans are securitized. Therefore, the borrowers do not have the ability to easily modify their loan or prepay without penalty even if something changes during the course of their business plan execution. Moreover, agency loan underwriting tends to be rigid. Loans must “fit the box” in order to qualify.
Agency loans are government-backed and mission-drive, making them the strongest lending option for multifamily borrowers during economic distress, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Agency lenders remained very active during this time—a time when other lenders sat on the sidelines waiting to see how the pandemic would unfold.
Approved lenders originate these loans and underwrite them according to agency guidelines. These lenders will usually share a portion of the lender risk and will often continue to hold and service the loan. At a national level, some of the most prominent agency lenders are Walker & Dunlop, Berkadia and CBRE.
In short, agency loans are a strong option for those needing to finance a stabilized multifamily property. However, the attractive terms will often come with little flexibility during both the underwriting and amortization periods.
CMBS loans stands for “commercial mortgage-backed security” loans. Financial firms, known as “conduits”, originate and underwrite these loans and then pool and sell them as securities.
Unlike agency loans, CMBS loans can be used for any property type. However, like agency loans, CMBS loans typically provide borrowers with little flexibility if they need to modify the loan for any purpose. This is because CMBS loans are packaged and sold to third-party buyers. The lender who originated the loan does not continue to service the loan over time the way a traditional bank would typically do.
Moreover, because CMBS loans are eventually packaged and sold, there is less focus on the quality of both the borrower and the actual asset being financed. As such, borrowers often use CMBS for deals that traditional banks, life insurance companies, or agency lenders do not finance for various reasons. It is common to see CMBS loans used on properties in secondary and tertiary markets, with an owner who has a less than excellent track record or reputation.
CMBS loan terms fluctuate with the market, but they generally provide long-term fixed rates that are otherwise competitive with banks, life insurance companies, and agency lenders.
Life Insurance Company Loans
Life insurance company loans, often referred to as “lifeco” loans, are similar to traditional bank loans in that the lender typically holds and services the loan and in turn, will look for borrowers to meet specific criteria. As such, lifeco loans are suitable for borrowers with a strong reputation who want to finance attractive properties in top locations.
Those who qualify will benefit from flexible loan terms that can be modified as needed to address any issues or changes in business plan execution over the lifetime of the loan. Lifeco loans can also be structured as non-recourse and will often include an attractive interest-only period if so desired.
Where they differ from traditional bank loans is that life insurance companies are primarily looking to lend long-term (10+ years) on stabilized, low-leverage properties (typically, a maximum 60% loan-to-value).
Lifeco loans can be used for any property type, but are most often used for stabilized multifamily, industrial, office, and grocery-anchored retail properties. While less common, they may also be used for “build-to-perm” loans, which are loans used to finance new construction projects that otherwise meet the lender’s criteria. Typically, these loans are converted into a long-term loan from a life insurance company.
Debt funds are typically private equity funds looking to make loans on commercial real estate projects. However, in recent years, the term “debt fund” has become synonymous with any private unconventional lender, including hedge funds, private family offices, wealthy individuals, and crowdfunding platforms, even if the fund if not supported by investors.
While debt funds will provide short-term (usually 2-5 years) and non-recourse loans. These loans will come at higher interest rates and with higher fees.
Debt funds are typically private equity funds looking to make loans on commercial real estate projects.
Another key characteristic of debt funds is they often have lenders who are experienced real estate professionals. Unlike traditional lenders, they are willing to take ownership of the real estate if the borrower fails to repay the loan. Therefore, debt funds are usually willing to take on more risk. Again however, that risk comes at a higher price for the borrowers.
Loans provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) deserve a mention when discussing financing alternatives. However, the reality is that these loans are only available to borrowers who plan to owner-occupy their real estate.
These loans are most appropriate, for example, for a small business owner who intends to purchase a property and then run their business out of that property.
Real Estate Crowdfunding Portals
In recent years, real estate crowdfunding portals, like CrowdStreet and Fundrise, have become a more popular way for people to secure financing for their real estate deals. These platforms can be used for a variety of purposes.
Some feature their own debt and equity funds. Others allow sponsors to raise capital for their own funds. In other cases, the platforms can be used by sponsors to raise money (debt and/or equity) for individual real estate projects – just as they would raise money for syndications offline.
In recent years, real estate crowdfunding portals, like
CrowdStreet and Fundrise, have become a more popular way for people
to secure financing for their real estate deals.
Real estate sponsors will often leverage crowdfunding portals to raise a portion of the capital they need for a project. This additional funding can supplement the traditional debt obtained through other means.
Hard Money Lenders
Hard money lenders are similar to debt funds. The exception is that these are typically individual lenders who operate in small geographic areas and lend on smaller-scale deals. Many house flippers and small-time real estate developers utilize hard money for their projects.
Hard money loans tend to be an option of last resort for borrowers. This is because they carry higher interest rates and more significant points and fees. Most borrowers will only utilize hard money loans in short-term situations. For example during construction or for a quick value-add renovation. Then they will pay off the loan and refinance into a more affordable, longer-term loan using a more traditional source of capital.
While seller financing is uncommon. It can still be a great financing tool where the buyer and seller have a good relationship. Seller financing is when the seller holds the note on the property. Then rather than repaying the bank, the buyer repays the seller just as they would make mortgage payments to a traditional lender.
Seller financing is most often used in situations where the seller is not intending to do a 1031 exchange. Therefore they can save on capital gains taxes by selling the property via an installment sale.
The benefit of seller financing is that it is highly customizable. While there are some general IRA requirements that need to be met. The only other limits to seller financing are creativity and what both parties can mutually agree to.
Whether you’re a real estate sponsor or real estate investor, it is important to be familiar with the breadth of financing tools available. From a sponsor’s perspective, identifying the most appropriate source of capital can easily impact a project’s overall returns. An investor, meanwhile, will want to know that a sponsor has conducted thorough due diligence on the financing available to them for the specific project as this can impact investors’ returns accordingly.
It’s common to use a combination of different financing sources for a project, not just one source of debt. As always, a sponsor should be sure to “shop” their deals around to various lenders. Simply to ensure they’re getting the best rates and terms available in the marketplace at that time.
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