Several years ago, I received a call from an attorney friend. Lynda asked if I would like to invest with her and buy a fractional interest in an apartment building in Texas. I explained that I didn’t have the available cash to invest at that time. Then she asked if I had a self-directed IRA. When I said “yes,” she went on to explain that with my self-directed IRA, there was a way to make the investment after all.
Using my IRA? To buy real estate? Imagine That™!
What is an IRA?
IRAs offer tax-favored personal savings arrangements that allow people to set aside money for their retirement. Most people encounter the individual retirement account (IRA) basics early in their financial education.
The government sets contribution rules, minimum distribution withdrawal rules, prohibited investment rules, transaction rules, etc. It provides several choices in specific types of IRAs such as traditional, Roth, simplified employee pension (SEP), and savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE).
Financial advisors most often focus IRA discussions simply around contribution limitations, rules for withdrawals, and tax-favored aspects. Once the basics are covered, however, most investors set up their IRA in a brokerage account and then select a “set-and-forget” strategy.
Not All IRA Accounts are the Same
What’s missing for investors – either because their advisors don’t have the option available, or worse . . . because their advisors are not aware of it – is counsel regarding a self-directed IRA option.
In our experience (especially when speaking with younger investors), we often hear the phrase, “I made my contribution to my IRA this year!” Our response is usually something like . . . “Terrific! That’s a great start! Is it an ‘other person directed’ IRA or a ‘self-directed’ IRA?” To which we usually get a glassy-eyed stare and a “What’s the difference?”
The reality is . . . most people overlook or are simply aware of the “self-directed” option for their IRA. And, in case that might be you, too . . . let’s “unpack” this special option from the government to ensure your hard-earned money works just as hard for you as you did for it!
Accessing this broader universe of investing options to help maximize the growth of your retirement assets is why we say, “there is more than meets the IRA!”
Does Someone Really Have a Multi-Billion Dollar IRA Account?
Last year, there was a big buzz about famed investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel after news of his $5 billion Roth IRA went viral after a ProPublica article. Clearly, Mr. Thiel did not achieve this through only using traditional investment vehicles or methods!
How did he do this?
For the most part, he used something called “alternative investments” within his IRA, including private stock in the company he co-founded, PayPal, and real estate. Unfortunately, most IRA custodians do not provide access to the universe of investment options such as Mr. Thiel took advantage of.
Self-directed IRA custodians, however, DO allow for “non-traditional” investments such as real estate to be purchased and held within an IRA.
What is the Difference Between a Custodian and an Investor?
It’s at this point that the distinction starts to get fuzzy between a custodian – self-directed or otherwise – and the investor . . . so let’s make sure the distinction is clear.
An IRA is always self-directed by the investor. You, the investor, are responsible for choosing which investments to purchase within the IRA account. The custodian does not choose them, but instead oversees and does the reporting to you and the IRS.
Where paths deviate, is that most custodians only provide a “menu” of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and so forth. A self-directed IRA custodian permits the same menu of traditional investments plus “alternative investments” like gold – private company stock – and as I did, real estate.
In general, custodians charge a service fee for the administrative work they provide, but again, they do not manage the IRA assets. Further, the IRA owns any assets within the IRA, including real estate . . . not you.
This is important, so it bears repeating. These are not your personal assets.
A Self-Directed IRA Isn’t You
To this point, it may be helpful to think of an IRA as a business owner thinks of their business. The business entity is a separate and distinct entity from the owners and operators.
Likewise, an IRA is separate from you. You establish your IRA for your FUTURE benefit. It’s not a vehicle to fund next year’s summer vacation.
You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) use a business credit card to go on a personal shopping spree, and the same idea holds true for investments in your IRA.
Investing in real estate takes advantage of the potential for higher income for the investor, as well as capital appreciation of the underlying asset(s). It works the same in your IRA. However, the hopefully higher income and future growth is not yours. It belongs to the IRA.
I’m sure you’ve guessed where this is going. The real property held inside the IRA isn’t yours either. That also belongs to the IRA!
All this creates additional considerations for you, the owner, in terms of potential liquidity limitations when allocating funds across the various investments inside your IRA. How do you invest without having all your retirement funds tied up in one single asset and asset class (real estate, for example)?
And the fun doesn’t just stop there! The “separate entity” structure of the IRA also has several limitations compared to standard real estate investing. In fact, there are SO many limitations that it’s wise to work with an experienced professional to avoid penalties for “self-dealing” or what is also called “prohibited transactions.”
Understanding the Self-Dealing/Prohibited Transaction Rules
There are certain rules and regulations that must be taken into consideration to avoid having your IRA disqualified under the law. One wrong move and 100% of the assets in your IRA can end up being taxed in a single year! Ouch!
A summarized explanation of the basics of what not to do can be found on the IRS’s own website in Publication 590. For purposes of this article, these limitations on “self-dealing” can be generally explained by saying that there are:
- Three asset types you simply cannot invest in, and
- Neither you nor any other “disqualified person” may engage in self-dealing with your IRA
So, how DO I Purchase Real Estate in my IRA?
The outright purchase of a property with IRA funds is not an option for many investors –especially at today’s prices.
Debt financing also has limited use in this situation because, as said above, you are not your IRA, so banks and other lenders are not willing to loan money to an IRA unless you are as well off as Peter Thiel!
But here’s the good news. There are a number of reputable real estate syndicators who allow you to invest with smaller capital commitments. Not only can you introduce diversification by purchasing real estate along with stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and ETFs, but you can also invest into different types of real estate . . . such as apartments, office buildings, storage facilities, and so forth . . . all in “fractional shares” that are more affordable. (I have seen some asking as little as $25,000 for a fractional interest in a project.)
And, as an added bonus, using these real estate syndications for investing makes it easier to enjoy the benefits of real estate investing without actively managing any of the properties or risking a “self-dealing” penalty as mentioned above.
So . . . What’s the First Step?
First, speak with the custodian/brokerage where you currently have your IRA account. What are all the available investment options they provide – and what is the cost of their services to provide the various investment options? If they’re limited to individual stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, then you know you’ll have to start shopping for a new custodian.
Next, how much do you have to work with? You should keep your retirement investments in “many baskets” – stay balanced. Utilize a certain amount of “traditional investments” – especially starting out – and add alternative investments on top of your existing asset base.
One point to remember – start slowly. Most forms of investments (i.e., stocks, mutual funds, bonds, ETFs) are liquid and the “piggy bank” can be accessed in an emergency or for the exceptions IRS allows. Real estate investments, however, are usually at least five years in term, or longer. One highly regarded real estate investment platform has NO liquidity options for at least ten years . . . and tells investors it could be longer – and even MUCH longer before a sale of the property, building, etc. occurs.
Many of the private offerings start at $100,000 but some can be half that amount. And, if you did what I did, we formed an LLC in Wyoming and contributed jointly using our respective IRA accounts or outside funds to add up to the $100,000 minimum investment.
Conclusion: You May Have More IRA Investment Options Than You Think
It’s easy to get excited about new investment strategies but don’t forget to consider how you are allocating assets across your entire investment portfolio. Your financial and liquidity outlook is just as important as the merits of a specific investment when considering alternative investment decisions.
Current market conditions are highly volatile and provide much lower yields than historically. Taking full advantage of additional investment options, like real estate, in your self-directed IRA can enhance the rate of growth of your assets and help you reach your retirement goals faster.
If you’d like to have a conversation about alternative investments and the use of self-directed IRAs, let’s schedule a complimentary 20-minute conversation. We can help you determine if diversifying your retirement portfolio is right for you – your progress thus far – your time horizon – risk tolerance levels and the importance of investment liquidity for at least a portion of your IRA account.
Investing in real estate using a self-directed IRA . . . “Imagine That™”!
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R. J. Kelly, Wealth Legacy Group®, Inc. – May 2022
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