The Ins and Outs of Equipment Leasing

The ins and outs of equipment financing

Suppose you need expensive equipment to run or grow your business. If you pay cash for it, your employees’ paychecks would bounce. Equipment leasing might be the rescuing you need.

1. What is Equipment Leasing?

Equipment leasing is a payment strategy accounting for around one-third of all equipment in use, from desktop computers to jumbo jets. “Evidence suggests,” according to the Commerce Finance Institute (CFI), “that an origin of leasing may have started… in the ancient Sumerian civilization.” Leasing has since evolved into an accessible financial resource.

The CFI defines an equipment lease as “a contract for the use of a piece of equipment over a specified period of time where the user of the equipment becomes the lessee and agrees to make periodic payments to the lessor of the equipment with specific end of term options.” In other words: you’re renting the equipment. Unlike renting a home, for example, the opportunity to buy the equipment outright when you enter the lease, is typically an option.

The accompanying illustration provides a breakdown of the categories of equipment leased today, and their share of the leasing universe. In the following pages we will explain when, why and how it is done. (NEED TO CREATE AN IMAGE FROM THIS ARTICLE – BA)

2. When Should I Lease Equipment?

Before you begin to think of different ways you can bring in new equipment, whether by leasing, borrowing or even paying cash, give the idea a reality check. Ask yourself the same questions that a leasing company or a lender will probably ask you:

  • Will the equipment meet an important business need that’s currently unmet?
  • Does the cost of continuing to use the equipment I already have, in repairs and/or inefficiency, justify the price of acquiring new equipment?
  • Is now a good time to get new equipment due to special “deals” in the market?
  • How does the new equipment fit into my overall business plan?
  • If I wait a little longer before bringing in new equipment, might more advanced models become available that will give my business more bang for my buck?
  • What is my expected return on investment?
  • Do I have adequate free cash flow to enter a lease agreement without needing to sacrifice more urgent spending priorities today or down the road?

Another important consideration pertains to your company’s tax situation. With an “operating lease,” you are unable to take advantage of an important tax code provision known as Section 179. That benefit is available to companies using a different kind of lease known as a “capital lease.” It’s also available to companies that buy equipment through borrowing.

If you haven’t payed a lot of business taxes lately and don’t expect to soon, you won’t get the full benefit of Sec. 179. It could make sense to use an operating lease. That way, the lessor—the company you lease the equipment from—gets that tax benefit. This helps you because the lessor takes into account the tax benefits factors when deciding how much to charge.

3. What’s The Difference Between Leasing Equipment And Financing Equipment?

When you lease equipment, you’re essentially renting it. Equipment “financing” means you buy equipment with money borrowed from a lender. You own the equipment. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

A third way to obtain business equipment is buying it outright without borrowing or leasing.

4. What Are The Pros And Cons of Financing?

Equipment financing pros:

  • If you have a strong balance sheet and profitability, you might be able to obtain a very competitively priced loan to purchase the equipment at a lower total cost than leasing. Having the purchased equipment as collateral for the loan already makes the loan less risky for the lender than an unsecured loan. A strong balance sheet makes you more attractive to lenders.
  • Depending on your financial strength, you might be able to borrow all of the money you need to buy the equipment without a down payment.
  • As the owner of the financed equipment, you may be able to claim tax benefits such as Sec. 179 and deductions for loan interest.
  • With a loan, you have the option to pay the principal balance off if you want to–without penalty. This allows you to reduce the total interest you pay, and ultimately, the cost of getting the equipment.
  • If you own the equipment and can pay off the loan, you can dispose of the equipment at your discretion.

Equipment financing cons:

  • Borrowing to purchase equipment could limit your ability to borrow for other purposes, if lenders believe you’re assuming too much debt.
  • An equipment loan appears as a liability on your balance sheet.
  • Depending on the size of your down payment for the equipment, the lender might need more assets to secure the loan than just the equipment being financed, possibly including personal assets. The equipment might depreciate faster than the amortization schedule for paying off the loan.
  • The equipment could be obsolete before you pay the loan off.

5. What Are The Pros and Cons of Leasing?

Equipment leasing pros:

  • For companies of average or even sub-par financial standing, equipment leases are generally easier to obtain than loans.
  • It is often easier to obtain equipment via leasing without having to put any money down, than with a loan.
  • The only “security” you need to pledge is the equipment itself—which technically isn’t yours anyway since you’re borrowing it from a lessor.
  • Leasing equipment is known as “off balance sheet financing.” At least with an “operating lease,” the liability associated with your lease obligation isn’t reported as a liability on your balance sheet. Also, lease payments are treated as operating expenses–and tax deductible.
  • At the end of the lease term, which should coincide with the time you want to replace old equipment with newer models, selling or otherwise disposing of it isn’t your problem. You just return it to the leasing company. This is helpful with high-tech equipment which becomes obsolete more quickly than other equipment, and thus more difficult to sell.
  • Flexibility is a hallmark of leasing. There are many ways to structure a lease agreement.

Equipment leasing cons:

  • Because the leasing company is typically assuming greater credit and technology obsolescence risk rather than a lender making a loan to a financially strong company, lease payments often have a higher built-in cost structure than loans.
  • You are obligated to make all of the payments prescribed by the lease contract. You typically cannot pay it off ahead of the original schedule. Or if you can and want to, you would incur a large financial penalty.
  • Many lease agreements place the burden on you to pay for certain repairs and maintenance services.

6. What’s Involved In Entering A Lease Agreement?

The first decision you’ll face, after you decide on the equipment, is what kind of a lease agreement suits your needs. You’ll probably have several options, you just need to figure out which is best for you.

What can you really afford? While a leasing company makes its own judgments about that, you might want to be more conservative in the appraisal of your financial capacity. This will give your company plenty of breathing room for future financial needs.

Another task associated with entering an equipment lease agreement is which leasing company to work with (see Section 10). Some equipment manufacturers have their own “built-in” leasing companies. But, you owe it to yourself to be sure you’ve found the best deal before signing on the dotted line.

The final step in the process is persuading a lessor that you’re the kind of company with which it wants to do business. That may involve turning over reams of financial documents, along with good explanations of why you need the equipment and what it’ll do for your business. The process is like applying for a bank loan. However, it will probably be less rigorous since you aren’t borrowing money. You’re simply paying rent on property that you don’t own.

7. What Are The Main Categories of Equipment Leases?

There are two basic kinds of equipment leases: capital and operating. With a capital lease, you’re treated (for tax purposes) as the owner of the leased equipment. That means you can take depreciation deductions or, if you’re eligible, a Section 179 deduction. With an operating lease, you are treated more as a renter than an owner, and not eligible for that tax benefit. The only tax benefit is that lease payments are tax deductible.

Under Section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code, you are able–in 2019–to take a deduction for up to $1 million in equipment acquisition by purchase or through capital leasing. There are strings attached, however. You’re only eligible if a) you don’t acquire more than $2.5 million of equipment in that year (although you might still be eligible for a partial deduction) and b) the equipment is used at least 50% of the time for your business.

The Section 179 deduction is phased out dollar for dollar, for every dollar your equipment acquisitions exceed $2.5 million. For example, if you acquire $2.7 million in equipment, your maximum Section 179 deduction would be $800,000. The kinds of equipment eligible for deductions are restricted.

Any of the following criteria must be met in order for a lease to be treated as a capital lease.

  • You automatically become the owner of the leased property at the end of the lease term.
  • You have the option to purchase leased property at a subsidized price.
  • The lease term is long enough to cover at least 75 percent of the “useful life” of the equipment.

8. What Are Some Subcategories Of Leases?

Under a capital lease, there are several subcategories. The most expensive (in terms of monthly payments) is the $1 buyout lease. You have the option to buy the leased equipment for $1 at the end of the lease term. In effect, you’re buying the equipment over the lease term, since the lessor is prepared to turn it over to you at that time for the price of $1.

This type of lease may be the easiest to qualify for as the lessor is getting more money from you. You might not want to use a $1 buyout lease unless you plan to buy the equipment, and expect to use it for years to come.

Another common capital lease is the 10 percent option lease. As the name suggests, it gives you the option to buy leased equipment for 10 percent of the original value when the lease is up. Your monthly payments might be lower than the $1 buyout lease since you’re only paying for 90 percent of the equipment. Yet, the interest rate the lessor uses to calculate the payment might be higher, because it’s assuming the risk that you’ll decide not to buy the equipment at the end of the term.

A variation on the 10 percent option lease is the 10 percent “purchase upon termination” (PUT) lease. You’re obligated to purchase the equipment for 10 percent of the original equipment cost when the lease is up. This is more of a financial risk to you, thus giving you lower monthly lease payments. Of course, you have to come up with the cash simultaneously.

What are the terms?

Terms for a standard operating lease, in which there are no special tax benefits (beyond writing off lease payments), is the FMV lease. It gives you the option of purchasing leased equipment for its fair market value (as set by the lessor) at the end of the lease term, return the equipment or renew the lease. It’s an operating lease because it’s more like a simple rental arrangement. Lessors set approval standards highest for FMV leases.

A fifth lease category, known as a TRAC (Terminal Rental Adjustment Clause) is a hybrid contract. Depending on specifications, it can be a finance or an operating lease. They’re used primarily for commercial vehicle leases.

9. How Much Does Leasing Cost?

The cost of leasing equipment varies. These are the factors determining the cost:

  • The value of the equipment
  • The competitive state in the market of lessors that specialize in companies like yours
  • The interest rate environment
  • The way credit and obsolescence risk are allocated between you and the lessor
  • The assigment of which party gets the tax benefits

Also critical is your credit history. In a perfect world, the stronger your credit score is, the lower your lease payments will be. You can find lease payment calculators online to give you ballpark numbers for your own leasing situation.

10. How Do I Decide Which Equipment Leasing Company Is Right For Me?

When you start looking for an equipment lessor, you’ll find four kinds:

  1. A company that just puts together equipment leases.
  2. A “captive”: a subsidiary of a company making costly equipment.
  3. A financial institution offering equipment leasing among a variety of other financial services.
  4. A lease broker, who helps you find a suitable lessor.

Considering the long-term financial commitment involved, shop around. Your best bet might be a leasing company that specializes in working with companies like yours, and / or specializes in the kind of equipment you want to lease. Getting competitive terms is important, but so is the strength and integrity of the leasing company.

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