Commercial mortgage underwriting through the eyes of the underwriter Michael Haltmanrelationship driven, borrower's expectations, referral business, debt-service coverage
Getting a borrower to approach you with a commercial mortgage
loan scenario is only the first step in the commercial mortgage
loan process. Upon your first analysis of the scenario there are
many combined factors that will determine if it will ever fund or
close. The best borrower and the best property means nothing if,
due to some error, a careless mistake or a poorly put together loan
package, there is no closing. Equally, if not more so than
residential financing, the commercial mortgage business is
extremely relationship driven, particularly when talking about
An old adage is that two loan officers can bring the same deal
to the same lender and, due to something that has or has not
happened in the past or because of the lack of a current
relationship, one will get a loan approval and one will not.
Always do what is in the best interest of the borrower and in the
best interest of the lender. Happy borrowers lead to referral
business, and happy lenders lead to your next viable deal getting
Always manage your borrower's expectations when it comes to the
potential rate, timing of the transaction and money that is
necessary to close a loan. Do not tell your clients what you think
they want to hear, tell them the reality. If someone else is
over-promising and can't deliver, the borrower will be back. If for
some reason they are able to get that better deal, you want to
recommend what is in their best interest.
Do not burn bridges with a borrower, and the potential referral
business they might provide, by jamming the wrong deal at them to
make a quick dollar.
Who is the underwriter?
The underwriter is the representative of the lender whose ultimate
job is to gauge the risk that a specific transaction possesses to
go into non-performance. It is his job to study every aspect of the
loan from the quality of the building, the income stream of that
building and the quality of the borrower to determine if the loan
fits into the lenders risk guidelines. In order to enhance the
potential for loan approval, present the underwriter with the most
complete and accurate loan package.
Some of the items they will consider include:
•What is the curb appeal of the building, how does it
look? In the event of a foreclosure, an ugly building would be
harder for a lender to sell than an attractive one, increasing the
risk to the bank.
•Who are the tenants and how long are the existing leases?
If the tenants leases are expiring 30 days after the loan closes,
that represents more risk to the income stream of the building than
a lease that expires in three years. What is the quality of the
tenants? If you had a building that had Kmart as a tenant, that
would have seemed very strong until they went into bankruptcy and
closed locations. For a lender that had to foreclose on the
property and sell it, a space that size is hard to rent out, which
makes the building harder to sell at the price they need to cover
the defaulted loan that they made. A Home Depot with a long term
lease as an anchor tenant would score more points with an
underwriter than a Dollar Store. Like an investor in anything, a
commercial mortgage lender always has to make a risk-reward
•Who is the borrower? While the key to a commercial mortgage
loan is the net operating income that the building produces, the
quality of the borrower does come into play. An underwriter wants
to know the credit score and whether the borrower has late
payments, particularly on mortgages. Late mortgage payments will be
the death knell of a loan for a majority of lenders. Again,
everything is looked at by the underwriter with an eye towards the
risk that a loan will present to the lender in terms of default.
The greater the risk that a loan possesses, the higher the reward
or interest rate that a bank will charge and the more stringent the
guidelines of the loan—i.e. an additional monthly reserve
mandated for maintenance if it is felt that the borrower might not
have the means if an unexpected repair came up.
Commercial mortgage underwriting is done on a case by case
basis, because every borrower and property to be financed creates a
unique situation. Remember, with commercial borrowers there are
typically stories that need to be told—whether it concerns
the building, the borrower, or both. It is the commercial property
investor or the ability of the LO to communicate the story
effectively, and the willingness of the underwriter to listen with
an open mind, that matters. These are things that can spell the
difference between the successful funding of a scenario versus the
death of the deal.
An underwriter's first most important criteria:
When an underwriter is examining a building with an eye towards
financing, one of the first questions that need to be answered is:
Does this building's income service the loan amount desired with an
appropriate level of debt-service coverage? In other words, what is
the debt-service coverage ratio (DSCR) of this property given the
building's current net operating income (NOI)?
It sounds like a complicated analysis, but it really isn't.
Gross rents - operating expenses = NOI
The operating expenses include property taxes, building
insurance, building utilities, five percent of gross rents for
vacancy and five percent of gross rents for management of the
If at first glance at a property you do not have all of the
expense figures, a very ballpark way to determine NOI is to take
1/3 off the gross rents—the remainder will give a very raw
NOI number. This number should not be used with the underwriter,
but to do a first glance attempt to determine debt-service
To determine the DSCR the underwriter will use the following
Yearly NOI/Total yearly principal and interest payments for the
loan amount at a given interest rate and amortization period
The typical minimum level for debt-service coverage is:
•1.2x for multifamily property's; and
•1.25x for other commercial property types.
Once the underwriter looks at the result and determines that the
number is at a high enough level, case closed and loan approved.
It is now the underwriters' job to take what, on the surface,
seems to be solid financial information, and get down into the
numbers to make sure of the integrity and accuracy of that
Do not embellish rent numbers or minimize expense numbers to make a
scenario work. This will be caught by an underwriter—it is
his job to catch it. The net result will be a rejected loan, and
the loss of any relationship with that lender.
As a side note, consider the risk-reward thinking that goes into
a lenders decision based on DSCR. All things being equal, what
represents a more attractive loan scenario, strictly according to
DSCR: 1.25x coverage or the same building at a 1.35x coverage?
Sounds simplistic, but of course the higher coverage is better
because it provides more of a cushion for the borrower that has to
pay the debt service, and creates a better situation for the lender
in the event they have to foreclose and sell the building.
Loan amount vs. loan-to-value
Loan to value (LTV), is not a term that a commercial underwriter
really considers when making a determination on the dollar amount
of a loan that will be offered for a purchase or a refinance. The
key determination is going to be how the income of that building
will service the debt of a certain loan amount. Of course, other
factors, such as an outside appraisal, will come into play when an
underwriter is calculating the loan amount—DSCR is going to
be the key number. Without a coverage ratio at an acceptable level,
the other factors will become irrelevant.
For the underwriter, as well as for the investor or borrower, to
get some idea of the value of the building and whether it has a
good chance to appraise at an appropriate value, the capitalization
rate for the given area can be used in conjunction with the NOI of
the building. Simply use the following calculation: NOI divided by
the capitalization rate will give you a ballpark value for the
building, as long as the two numbers are accurate.
Most, if not all, lenders are going to require an appraisal by an
independent firm on that lenders approved list. Getting an
appraisal upfront before speaking to the lender can be a waste of
time and money. Of the different methods that an appraiser will use
to calculate the value of a property, the income approach is the
Paperwork preparation, the loan package
Remember in the beginning we talked about the importance of putting
your best foot forward when applying for a loan either for yourself
or for a borrower? We talked about having one chance to make a good
first impression on the underwriter.
The first step is to know the situation as well as possible so
that potential surprises can be avoided (although they will
inevitably arise). The second is to make sure that the numbers seem
to work for the building as well as the borrower so that the
lenders and underwriters time is not wasted with scenarios that
have absolutely no possibility of getting funded.
If the minimum credit score for the lender is 600, don't bring a
borrower with a 520 that has no stronger guarantor. If the minimum
DSCR for a given building type at that lender is 1.25x, don't waste
their time with a building and loan amount that will result in a
DSCR of 1.05x.
While exceptions can be asked for and sometimes granted for
aspects of a loan that might not fit the lenders specific criteria,
use common sense underwriting when looking at a potential scenario.
You ultimately want to be the person that the underwriter is happy
to hear from because they know that the loan scenario you are
bringing them will be viable, not a complete waste of their
Not every viable commercial mortgage loan scenario will ultimately
get funded, as a wide variety of stumbling blocks can come up
unexpectedly throughout the process. The key is to know your
scenario inside and out, and build a strong base which will lead to
a strong loan package.
As in anything, a weak foundation or base for a loan package will
lead to a relatively high probability of the loan not getting
funded because it will never get through underwriting.
General documents required for a commercial mortgage
What is the paperwork that you should be prepared to provide to the
•1003 or loan application;
•Credit report with FICO score (and explanations for any
•Two years of personal tax returns (for a full documentation
•Two years of property tax returns;
•Property income and expense statement;
•Digital pictures of the property;
•Copies of current leases and rent roll;
•Schedule of other owned real estate;
•Contract of sale for a purchase;
•Copy of insurance and utility bills for the building;
•Current mortgagor information for a refinance; and
•Agreement to subordinate to a new first mortgage loan if a
current subordinate mortgagor exists in a refinance.
The underwriter at the given lender is going to assimilate all of
the paperwork provided and make a determination on its validity and
accuracy. If everything is found to fit into the lenders parameters
and risk tolerances, a letter of interest will be given to the
borrower. The interest rate and loan amount will be at a level
commensurate with the DSCR and perceived risk of the borrower and
The relationship that you will have with the underwriter needs to
be professional and hopefully congenial, but it has to be
understood that first and foremost they are there to protect the
interests of the lender. Exceptions on a specific building or
borrower will only be made if it can be completely and
satisfactorily explained to the lenders.
If all of the steps are followed correctly and accurately, your
loan will have the best chance of passing muster and getting
ultimate approval. Commercial mortgage financing can, at time, be a
frustrating undertaking due to the nuance and potential pitfalls
involved, but can be well worth the effort.
Know your lenders, and know the type of financing that each lender
does. Never attempt to shove a loan at a lender that is not even
close to the lending criteria that they look for. Much of the
process comes down to the building to be funded, to the borrower
and to the credibility of the person that is bringing the loan to
Michael Haltman is the president of Commercial Capital
Alliance, a direct commercial mortgage lender located in
Jericho, N.Y. He may be reached at (516) 741-8880 or e-mail [email protected]