What Makes a Partially Amortized Loan Different

a hand signing an amortized loan document
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If you've borrowed money before, you're probably familiar with amortized loans. "Amortization" refers to the process of evenly spreading out a loan's payments over the length of the loan term. After you make your last required monthly payment, the loan is paid in full.

Most consumer debt is made up of fully amortized loans, but partially amortized loans also exist. This is just as it sounds: The borrower pays off a portion of the debt with regular monthly payments, then makes a "balloon payment"—a large lump sum—on the loan maturity date. With partially amortized loans, only a portion of the full loan value is amortized, with a significant lump-sum payment due at the end of the loan's term.

Key Takeaways

  • Amortization refers to the process of evenly spreading out a loan's payments over the length of the loan term.
  • With partial amortization, a portion of the debt is paid with regular monthly payments; then, a "balloon payment"—a large lump sum—is made on the loan maturity date.
  • Despite their potential cash flow benefits, the biggest danger with taking on a partially amortized loan is almost always the massive repayment that is due at the end of the contract.

Commercial Lending

Partially amortized loans are commonly found in certain business lending arrangements, such as commercial real estate. They allow the bank or financial institution to set a fixed interest rate for a certain time frame and can be an attractive option since the loan requires much lower monthly payments than would otherwise be possible. These reduced payments allow the project time to grow and appreciate or begin to earn revenue.

This is beneficial for both the borrower and the lender. The borrower can make minimal payments while they wait for their cash flow to increase, and the lender doesn't have to take on significant duration risk. Longer loan terms have the real possibility of inflation, reducing the final maturity value of the collateral underlying the loan.

While partially amortized loans are most common in business lending, well-qualified individuals may be eligible for personal mortgages or home equity loans with similar payment structures.

Risks of Partially Amortized Loans

Despite their potential cash flow benefits, the biggest danger with taking on a partially amortized loan is almost always the massive repayment that is due at the end of the contract. No matter how stable or predictable your income is, no one knows what the future holds. If your finances take a turn for the worse, you could find yourself unable to pay off the balloon payment at the end of the loan.

A common mistake people make is assuming they'll be able to refinance before that lump sum is due. But refinancing is not always available and if it is, it's not always available on economically acceptable terms.

Partially amortized loans can also cost more than their fully amortized counterparts. Because you're making minimal payments until the very end of the loan, your loan principal will typically be larger over most of your loan term. This can mean higher interest charges over the life of your loan.

There is also a non-amortizing loan, or "interest-only" loan as it is more frequently called. Most bond investments are structured this way. Here, the borrower will pay only the interest due each month. Upon maturity of the loan, the borrower has to pay the principal or get a new loan.

Partially Amortized Loan vs. Fully Amortized Loan

Imagine you wanted to take on a $1,000,000 partially amortizing loan. You have a fixed interest rate of 8.5%. The bank agrees to give you a seven-year maturity with a 30-year amortization schedule.

With these terms, your payment would be about $7,690 per month. You'll end up paying $576,678 in interest. At the end of seven years, you'll owe a lump sum of $938,480, and you must repay that entire amount or you'll default. If you default, the bank will seize the collateral and perhaps force you to declare bankruptcy, depending upon how the terms are structured. You'll end up repaying $1,576,678 in total.

In contrast, if you had a traditional, fully amortizing loan with a seven-year maturity, you would pay $15,836 per month. You'll end up repaying $1,330,265, and at the end of the term, you'll owe nothing. While you make larger monthly payments with this model, you pay nearly $250,000 less in interest.

Why Companies Use Partial Amortization

Why would someone opt for the partially amortized loan in this situation? Despite the higher cost and the large balloon payment, the borrower got to enjoy more than $8,000 in spare cash each month as a result of the lower monthly payment. That could give the business project enough time to get off the ground or to sell whatever it was that the borrower was developing.

In other cases, the underlying business growth might be sufficient to wipe out the loan's balance. For example, say a growing beverage company can't keep up with demand, so it borrows a partially amortized loan to build a much larger factory. That new factory allows the company to continue expanding and increase its income. By the time the balloon payment comes due, the company can easily afford it.