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SBA Loans: What You Need to Know

March 31, 2020
Small Business, Small Business Loans
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Of all types of small business funding, Small Business Administration 7(a) loans are one of the best ways to finance your enterprise. They’re guaranteed by the federal agency, which allows lenders to offer them with flexible terms and low interest rates. Getting one can help you grow your business without taking on possibly crippling debt.

SBA loans, as the 7(a) loans are also known, are the agency’s most popular type of financing. There’s one big downside, however: It can be tough to get a loan from the SBA.

Still, low annual percentage rates make the SBA program one of the smartest ways to fund your company. With some know-how and preparation, you may be able to secure some of the lowest business financing available. And if you don’t qualify for an SBA loan, there are faster, more accessible ways to borrow money, including online small-business loans.

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What is an SBA loan?

SBA loans are small-business loans guaranteed by the SBA and issued by participating lenders, mostly banks.

The SBA can guarantee up to 85% of loans of $150,000 or less and 75% of loans of more than $150,000. The average 7(a) loan amount was about $425,500 in 2018, according to the agency’s lending statistics. The program’s maximum loan amount is $5 million.

If you’re looking to open a new location, hire employees or refinance an existing loan, SBA loans are a great option. SBA loan rates and terms typically are more manageable for borrowers than other types of financing.

» MORE: SBA disaster loans for businesses hit by natural disaster

Summary of SBA loan types

Loan typeWhat you need to know
7(a) loan program (SBA’s flagship loan program)
  • Federally guaranteed term loans of up to $5 million.

  • Funds for working capital, expansion, equipment purchases.

  • Processed through banks, credit unions, specialized lenders.
504 loan program
  • Federally guaranteed loans of up to $5 million.

  • Funds for buying land, machinery, facilities.

  • Processed through private-sector lenders and nonprofits.
Microloans
  • Loans of up to $50,000.

  • Funds for working capital, inventory, equipment, starting a business.

  • Processed through community-based nonprofits.
SBA disaster loans
  • Loans of up to $2 million.

  • Funds for small-business owners affected by natural disasters and other emergencies.

  • Processed through the SBA.

What interest rate and terms can I get on an SBA loan?

In keeping with SBA rules, participating lenders set their interest rates based on the prime rate plus a markup rate known as the spread.

SBA 7(a) loan interest rates in 2020

SBA loan size7(a) loan paid off in under 7 years *7(a) loan paid off in over 7 years *
$25,000 or less7.50%8.0%
$25,001 to $50,0006.50%7.0%
More than $50,0005.50%6.0%
*Rates calculated with the current prime rate of 3.25%. Updated March 2020.

Note that the APR on a loan differs from the interest rate. The APR is a percentage that includes all loan fees in addition to the interest rate.

For example, SmartBiz, an online lender that specializes in SBA loans, offers APRs of around 10% for regular 7(a) loans around 7.0% for its 7(a) commercial real estate loans. Live Oak Bank offers SBA loans with APRs ranging from about 5.0% to 8.0%.

In contrast, major online small-business lenders that don’t do SBA loans offer financing with APRs that can be in the triple digits.

In addition to the low APRs, another perk of SBA loans is that you get more time to repay them than you would get on non-SBA forms of lending from banks or online lenders.

The loan term depends on how you plan to use the money, according to the SBA:

  • Working capital or daily operations: seven years.
  • New equipment purchases: 10 years.
  • Real estate purchases: up to 25 years.

For SBA loans, a longer term means a lower interest rate and lower regular payments. That means you’ll have more money available for other business needs.

What is an SBA loan guarantee?

Lenders provide the funds that make up an SBA loan, but the agency guarantees a portion of the amount, up to a $3.75 million guarantee. That means if you default on the loan, the SBA pays out the guaranteed amount. This guarantee lets lenders offer longer terms for repayment than they otherwise could, which means your monthly payments will be lower.

» Are you having trouble making payments on your SBA loan? Find out what to expect and some possible resolutions if you’re facing default on an SBA loan.

The SBA also requires a personal guarantee from every owner with at least a 20% ownership stake and from others who hold top management positions. A personal guarantee puts you and your personal assets on the hook for payments if your business can’t make them.

How do I get an SBA loan?

Applying for an SBA loan can take weeks, even months. Your chances of being approved are greater if your personal and business finances are in good shape.

If your business is struggling, an SBA loan is probably out of the question. And if it falls into any of the ineligible categories the SBA spells out on its site, don’t bother applying.

If you think you qualify, the best place to start is the SBA website, which includes a loan application checklist. Use this to gather your documents, including your tax returns and business records.

Here are some of the documents you’ll need before applying:

  • SBA’s borrower information form
  • Statement of personal history
  • Personal financial statement
  • Personal income tax returns (previous three years)
  • Business tax returns (previous three years)
  • Business certificate or license
  • Business lease
  • Loan application history

Then ask your SBA district office for the names of a few approved lenders. The agency also offers a SBA Lender Match tool to match potential borrowers with lenders. Banks follow SBA guidelines but use their own underwriting criteria to evaluate loan applications.

The SBA has another financing program called SBA Express, which aims to respond to loan applications within 36 hours. If your credit and small-business finances are in excellent shape, the wait may be shorter. The maximum amount for this type of financing is $350,000, and the maximum amount the SBA could guarantee is 50%.

How do I pick the right bank?

If you’re applying through a traditional bank, it helps to work with one that has a track record of processing SBA loans. Ask your potential lender these questions:

  • How many SBA loans do you make?
  • How often do you fund SBA loans?
  • How experienced is your staff in the process?
  • What is the dollar range of the loans you make?

In general, a bank with multiple years of experience in processing SBA loans will be able to give you guidance, including letting you know your chances of being approved.

SBA loans online: SmartBiz and Live Oak

Banks are the most popular place to get SBA loans, but online platforms have made it easier and faster to apply.

We compared two top options: SmartBiz, based in San Francisco, and Live Oak Bank, based in Wilmington, North Carolina.

You must have an established business and solid personal and business finances to qualify.

When is SmartBiz the right choice?

If you’re looking for an SBA loan of less than $350,000 for working capital or debt refinancing, SmartBiz is a good choice. It works with partner banks to underwrite SBA 7(a) loans of $30,000 to $350,000. The lender also offers SBA 7(a) commercial real estate loans from $500,000 to $5 million with APRs ranging from 7.38% to 7.43%.

When is Live Oak Bank the right choice?

Live Oak Bank is second only to Wells Fargo in dollar volume lent through the SBA program. Loan amounts range from $75,000 to $5 million.

To qualify, your business must be in one of the 17 industries the bank funds, which includes accounting and tax firms, automotive, family entertainment, funeral service, government contracting, insurance and senior care.

Find and compare small-business loans

If an SBA loan isn’t the right fit, look for small-business loans to meet your needs and goals with the help of NerdWallet’s comparison tool. We gauged lender trustworthiness and user experience, among other factors, and made recommendations based on categories including your revenue and how long you’ve been in business.