Paying down a high-interest business loan by refinancing your home may save you some money. But there are risks — especially for a business that’s shrinking
Dear Your Business Credit,
We have a business loan that was taken out when our business was doing well. With the new economy, our business is doing about a fourth of what it was. The loan is at $40,000 and a high interest rate. We have refinanced our home at a much lower interest rate and have taken out cash to clear our business debt and credit cards. Since our bank has made a lot of dollars on our business loan, I would like to know how to reduce what we pay every month with a cash payout. Is this a possibility? Thanks. — Jim
It’s smart to do your homework in a situation like this.
When I ran your question past Jeffrey M. Stibel, chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility, which issues credit scores for businesses, he said that if you made a personal guarantee on the loan, then using your home equity line to pay down the business line could make sense. “Home equity lines are relatively affordable, lower risk since there is no personal guarantee, and — in this particular case — may be a good way to subsidize the business while it gets back on solid footing,” he said.
It could also help you avert the damage to your personal credit that you could potentially suffer if you can’t pay the business loan. “Business credit that is backed personally risks a personal bankruptcy,” he says.
Nat Wasserstein, a crisis manager with Lindenwood Associates in Upper Nyack, NewYork, and New York City, also agreed that refinancing your debt using your home equity line of credit could give you some breathing room. However, he says there’s a downside to tapping your home equity: “You’ll encumber personal assets for business,” he says. What happens if your business fails? You may end up with no way to bring in income and find yourself falling behind on your mortgage, which puts your house at risk.
I assume that when you say your business is doing a fourth of what it was, you are referring to sales. If that’s the case, you may have what Wasserstein calls an “upside down” balance sheet. You could have too much debt relative to the sales you’re taking in. That’s because you took out the loan at a time when you had four times more revenue.
In a scenario like this, Wasserstein recommends that entrepreneurs look for ways to get rid of the debt entirely and not just stretch it out. In an ideal scenario, you’d figure out a way to bring in a lot more money, so you could retire the loan by paying it off. That might mean coming up with a new product or service more profitable than what you are selling now — something you may need to do, anyway, if sales are a quarter of what they once were. Many businesses have had to reinvent themselves in a more digital and global economy, and brainstorming with your business advisors and mentors or a few fellow entrepreneurs that you trust could pay off. Taking a second job for a while may also help you build momentum in paying down the loan.
If those full-payback options are not possible, it’s worth considering another option: a “workout” or restructuring of the debt with your bank. Essentially, you need to alert the bank that you no longer have enough revenue to support the loan payments. This may enable you to negotiate an arrangement in which the bank forgives part of the debt so you can improve the balance sheet of your business.
Why would a bank do this? A lender would rather that you keep the business open so you can pay back some of the debt than see you go out of business, he explains. If you close your doors, the bank will likely have to liquidate the business, and will probably walk away with less money than if you keep working and make loan payments. “It’s a risk management issue for the bank,” Wasserstein says.
However, this is not easy to orchestrate if it looks like you have some other means to pay the debt. “A bank workout when a business is doing that poorly is unlikely if the individual can afford to pay the loan as is,” says Stibel. Given that the loan is for $40,000 and not, say, $1 million, the bank may not buy an argument that you can’t come up with the money somehow.
Anyone looking to do a workout would need a turnaround professional to make a strong financial case to the bank that you cannot generate the necessary sales to pay down the loan, Wasserstein says. Once the bank has that information, it is under an obligation to write down the loan, he says. “They have no choice,” he says. “They can’t lie to bank regulators when evidence is being presented to them that a loan is no good.” Once a bank writes down the loan, it is a lot easier to forgive, he says.
If you want to go this route, don’t just walk into your bank and try to negotiate the terms yourself. This is a complex negotiation, and you need a financial professional with experience in restructuring a business on your side, says Wasserstein.
As in many areas of financial services, some professionals in this area are more reputable than others. He suggests talking to a well-respected attorney in your community who handles business bankruptcies to see if he or she can recommend a good turnaround professional. The Turnaround Management Association, a nonprofit group with more than 9,000 members, is another potential source.
Having interviewed several entrepreneurs who have gone through a workout with a bank over the years, I can tell you that it was extremely stressful for many of them. The bank may play hardball. But in some cases, it may be worth enduring if you emerge with a much lower debt burden and can save your business. Good luck — and please check back in and let me know how you’re doing.