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Understanding Loan Agreements

loan agreementsIt is almost inevitable in the course of any entrepreneur’s business life that he or she will sooner or later need to take out a business loan.

There are all sorts of details that go into such agreements, in fact too many too go over in any single article, but that said, there are some general provisions and categories of which you need to be aware before going to the bank, and getting that much-needed loan.

Before we go into those, remember this rule: An Agreement is called an agreement for a reason. Both sides need to agree to the terms and conditions. While it might seem that the lender’s loan agreement is set in stone, the fact is, it is not.

Remember the rule: Everything is negotiable. Well, maybe not everything, but a lot more than you may think. That 25-page loan contract can be changed and modified. OK, with that caveat in place, here are the key things you need to know:

Overview: Right up front you should expect your loan agreement to lay out the essential terms of the loan:

  • The parties to the contract
  • The amount being loaned
  • Interests rate and payments
  • Repayment terms
  • Fees

Loan drilldown: The loan agreement will detail exactly how much is being loaned, at what interest, how the money will be disbursed, what the repayment requirements are, whether there is a grace period, due dates, penalties for late payment, causes for default, and redress in the case of default. Make sure you understand this section inside and out.

Collateral and guarantees: In all likelihood, you will be putting up some collateral to secure the loan. This section will detail what the collateral is, how it is to be held during the life of the loan, and what happens to it should the borrower default.

By the same token, you may be asked to sign a personal guarantee. Of course you don’t want to do this if you can avoid it; one of the reasons you incorporated was to avoid personal liability for business debts. But that said, in the case of a business loan, it often cannot be avoided. So this section details the guarantee you may have to make, whether you like it or not.

Covenants and conditions: These are extra requirements that the lending institution may require. These can include things like

  • Proof of insurance
  • Prohibition against selling the business or otherwise further encumbering it
  • Having all licenses and taxes up to date

The fine print: The fine print gets a bad rap for a good reason. Too many unscrupulous business people bury important terms in there, hoping to sneak one by an unsuspecting signatory to the contract. Some things you may find in the fine print include:

  • Attorney’s fees clauses which state that if they have to sue, you have to pay for their lawyer if they win (and vice versa)
  • Jurisdiction: What state’s laws apply to the agreement?
  • Changes in the interest rate. Is the rate fixed or variable? You better know
  • Pre-payment penalties, if any

If this all seems complicated, that is because it is. This would be a fine time to see your lawyer.

Author:

Steven D. Strauss is the country's leading small business expert. An internationally recognized lawyer, columnist, and speaker, Steve is also an author of 15 books. Steve's highly syndicated business column, Ask an Expert, appears weekly at USATODAY.com He is also the small business columnist for Microsoft, and AT&T who calls him "America's Small Business Expert."