If you're looking for a new-business loan, don't be surprised when the banker leans across the desk and asks for a personal guarantee as one form of collateral. But before you sign your name or pledge personal assets, understand that all guarantees aren't alike -- and that the exact wording is sometimes negotiable, though only at the time the loan agreement is signed. Here are some of the formats owner guarantees take:
* Unlimited guarantee. With an unlimited guarantee, the guarantor stands behind the entire loan or credit line. That means if the business defaults on, say a $500,000 loan package, you'll be expected to personally make good on any deficiencies. You're personally on the hook until the debt is paid. Bankers push for these guarantees in the belief that the more exposed you are, the more focused you'll be about meeting the loan's terms.
* Limited guarantee. A limited guarantee is less encompassing than a complete guarantee, making it more palatable to the borrower (and less secure to the lender). The requirements can be stiff, however. A limited guarantee usually works like this: The business gets a loan for, say, $500,000, but the bank agrees to limit the personal guarantee to $250,000. If the business can't meet loan payments, the bank, knowing it's not fully protected, will try to get part of the loan repaid by collecting receivables and selling assets. If, after the guarantor pays the $250,000, there's still a shortfall, the bank will take a hit, unless the agreement specifies other pieces of collateral.
* Joint-and-several guarantee. Say it's not just one person standing behind the $500,000 loan but two or more, all individuals of means. You'd think that the lender would be satisfied if each person guaranteed $250,000, but don't count on it. Many banks will try to set the loan up as "joint and several," which means they'll ask each of you to stand behind the full amount of the loan. You can try talking them out of it, but whether or not they back off will hinge on the quality of your other collateral and your overall financial strength.
* Time guarantee. Most guarantees are written to remain in effect until the loan is fully repaid. But some agreements spell out conditions under which personal guarantees can be eased or lifted. If, for example, the company has managed to meet specified performance standards for two or three years, the bank might relax its requirements or even tear up the guarantee altogether. Some but not all banks will commit to that in writing at the time the loan is made. -- Bruce G. Posner