Interest-Only Commercial Real Estate Loans – Potential Pros and Cons

As the name implies, when you secure an interest-only commercial real estate loan, the monthly debt service is equal to the interest on the principal loan balance. For example, on a $10 million loan amortized over 30 years with a 5% interest rate, the interest-only payment is $41,666.67. Whereas the debt service on a non-interest-only loan would be $54,486.03 (principal plus interest).

Generally, when securing a bridge loan, the debt service will automatically be interest-only. However, when securing an agency loan from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may have the option to receive one or more years of interest-only payments (even up to the full hold period for the most experienced borrowers).

When securing an agency loan and deciding whether to pay interest-only or pay principal plus interest from day one, here are some things to think about:

Potential Benefits of Interest-Only Payments

There are two main potential benefits to securing an interest-only period for a commercial real estate loan.

First is the higher cash flow during the interest-only period. When implementing a value-add business plan, you are forcing appreciation by improving the physical property and the operations to increase the net operating income. Typically, this process takes at least a year to complete. So, during this value-add period, the net operating income (and therefore, the cash flow) is lower. When you secure an interest-only loan, the lowered net operating income may be offset by the reduced debt service. As a result, you can use the extra cash flow to either reinvest in the property or, more likely, distribute returns to your investors. In fact, one of the best ways to achieve the preferred return during the renovation period is to secure an interest-only loan.

The second potential benefit of the interest-only loan is that you and your investors can receive cash sooner rather than later. The additional cash flow received during the interest-only period helps increase the IRR compared to receiving that cash at sale. Back to the $10 million loan example in the introduction, the difference between the interest-only payment and the principal plus interest payment is $12,819.36. Technically, all payments above the interest amount reduces the loan balance. So, rather than receiving that additional payment during the business plan, you would receive it at sale. Due to the time value of money, that $12,819.36 is worth more when received during the hold period than it would be worth in the future, say once the property is sold in 5 years. In addition, in the event of a massive reduction in property value, you and your investors will be much happier if you were able to receive those additional cash payments, especially if the value of the property is lower than the loan balance that would have otherwise been paid down.

Potential Drawbacks of Interest-Only Payments

There are three potential drawbacks to securing an interest-only loan.

First is that there is no principal paydown. As I mentioned above, this is also a potential benefit due to the time value of money. However, if the plan is to refinance or secure a supplemental loan after implementing the value-add business plan, the proceeds will be lower due to the fact that no principal was paid down during that period. Or, if the market cap rate increases and the value of the property decreases, you may become “underwater” on the mortgage and have to actually pay to sell the asset.

Secondly, once the interest-only period expires, the debt service increases. If you are not implementing a value-add business plan, unless the rental rates increase naturally, your cash flow will take a major hit once your debt service increases. If you are implementing a value-add business plan, you will need to increase the cash flow by an amount that is equal to or greater than the increase in debt service once the interest-only period expires. If you are unable to increase the cash flow as quickly or as high as projected, you may not be able to achieve your projected returns once the interest-only period expires.

Lastly, you may convince yourself to do a bad deal because of the lowered debt service during the interest-only period. For example, you may underwrite standard principal plus interest debt and the deal doesn’t meet your return projections. But if you underwrite three years of interest-only, the deal does meet your return projections. This isn’t a problem as long as you are conservatively underwriting the deal. Since you know the deal doesn’t make sense with a standard principal plus interest loan at the current net operating income, you need to be confident in your ability to increase that net operating income amount before the interest-only period expires.

Conclusion

Overall, interest-only loans are best when you are implementing a value-add business plan. As long as you are conservatively underwriting your deals and are confident in your rent premium assumptions, interest-only loans are a great way to distribute the preferred return to your investors while you are repositioning the asset.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as an offer to buy or sell any securities or to make or consider any investment or course of action.

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Joe Fairless