Most people with Individual Retirement Accounts open them with a bank or brokerage firm (the custodian) that limits what investments can go into the account. These custodians typically limit your investments to stocks, bonds, and mutual funds with whom they have distribution agreements.
A little-known option that allows owners of an IRA to have unlimited control of the investments they can hold is the self-directed IRA. Assets permitted in self-directed IRAs include real estate, promissory notes, mortgages, tax lien certificates, US gold coins, and private placement securities.
I have clients who use self-directed IRAs to hold promissory notes, mortgages, and contracts for deed. The IRA acts like a bank by making a loan (secured by real estate) to a non-related party. They can often earn 5% to 10% returns. Of course, there is also a significant risk of having to foreclose on the loan and losing a portion of the investment.
Before you jump into a self-directed IRA, you need to do some homework. When you make an investment in a self-directed account, you are on your own. The custodian does little more than be sure your documents are in order. It’s up to you to do your own due diligence on the merits of the investment.
Self-directed IRAs are proving to be such a magnet for unscrupulous promoters of dubious investment schemes that the SEC has issued an investor alert warning owners against fraudulent promoters. The best advice is the old axiom, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
That said, Ed Slot, publisher of the IRA Advisor, has some tips for self-directed IRA owners.
1. Be sure the investment is allowed in an IRA. Life insurance, collectables, numismatic coins, and S-corporation stock are not allowed.
2. Don’t partner with or purchase anything from a “disqualified person,”—a spouse, child, grandchild, or someone acting in a fiduciary role for the IRA.
3. If you sell real estate held in a traditional IRA, gains will be taxed at ordinary income rates when the proceeds come out of the IRA instead of as long-term capital gains. Gains on real estate held in Roth IRAs, however, come out tax-free.
4. Don’t think putting your business into an IRA could allow profits to grow tax-free. The Unrelated Business Income Tax is levied on a business owned by a tax-exempt entity like an IRA.
5. The IRS prohibits a “disqualified person” from running or occupying any business or investment owned by your IRA. You or your extended family cannot farm land owned by your IRA. You cannot occupy, even for a day, a property owned by your IRA. Doing so nullifies your IRA and makes it completely taxable.
6. Investment real estate in an IRA might be best owned free and clear of any financing. The Unrelated Debt-Financed Income tax applies to mortgage loans. Also, personally guaranteeing a loan is a prohibited transaction that nullifies your IRA.
7. You must value the assets of the IRA annually. This is a no-brainer for stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, but for real estate it may mean paying for costly annual appraisals.
8. Real estate owned in an IRA must generate enough cash flow to pay all its expenses. Writing a personal check for repairs or loaning money to the IRA are prohibited transactions that make the IRA fully taxable.
9. Holding illiquid investments in a self-directed IRA poses a problem when you reach 70½ and must begin taking distributions.
Self-directed IRAs can be a great tool to bolster retirement income, when used properly. Just be sure you consider all the pitfalls before taking the plunge.