Saturday, October 6, 2007

Is Putting Real Estate in your Self-Directed IRA a Realistic Investment Choice?

The pursuit for a secure retirement has become progressively more difficult. Given the uncertainty of today's stock market in light of corporate governance failure on a massive scale with the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the poor recovery of investment because of the panic selling of stocks and bonds that have since wobbled their way back up, without bringing investors' funds with them and the political and economic uncertainty generated by the 'war against terrorism', it is not surprising that investors are looking for alternative choices to invest their retirement funds.

These days, many investors prefer to have a wider range of choices and the ability to diversify their retirement fund investments outside the poorly performing, so called conservative choices of stocks and bonds, and into other areas. This has resulted in a massive expansion in the market for self-directed IRAs.

Oftentimes the phrase self-directed IRA is tossed around by prominent investment firms and is only narrowly understood by the majority IRA investors. Unbeknownst to many self directed IRA investors many investment firms would have them believe that the term self-directed IRA only refers to the ability to choose which stocks, bonds and mutual funds they can buy. Fortunately, there is more to this narrative.

In contrast, a growing culture of investors is educating themselves on their investment alternatives and they are now starting to invest in real estate and other non-traditional assets. Indeed, any legitimate business investment is open to them both as single investors and undertaking group investments. If you know what you are doing or have expert advice in the area, it is possible even with low cash reserves to diversify retirement portfolios and in particular to capitalize on the growing real estate industry for example.

Most conventional financial planners don't offer truly self directed IRA plans since they may operate under plan documents which only allow investors to invest in stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Nor is it in their interest to do so. Their commission structures are set up to favor investment in the financial markets whether this is in the best interest of the investor or not. Which means their advice is hardly objective.

Of course, this is not advising that investors completely abandon stock market offerings, merely that they do not keep all their eggs in one basket. Just as stock markets rise and fall so can real estate prices. But diversifying your investments minimizes the risk on your returns.

Procuring real estate for investment purposes with an IRA provides several favorable tax breaks. A Roth IRA allows the investor to benefit from tax deferral while it is growing and to be free from tax on distribution in contrast to a traditional IRA which is taxed at time of distribution. Nor is there a minimum distribution and investors can also continue to pay into Roth IRAs which can be of benefit if they intend to pass them to their heirs (which can be done without taxation). In addition, unlike 1031 exchanges, there are no specified investment timeframes or requirements to procure 'like kind' investments. Finally, capital gains tax is not applied since taxation does not occur until distribution.

All of these factors contribute to making real estate investment with IRA funds very tempting. However, it is not something that should be undertaken lightly nor should investors, unless they are experts in their own right in the tax and investment laws, undertake for themselves, due to the strict and sometimes complex legislation imposed through the IRS. Otherwise they may find themselves exposed to penalties and taxes. Just as you choose a traditional financial advisor when looking into stock and mutual fund investments you should also look a properly qualified self-directed IRA advisor.

First, traditional financial advisors are not usually best placed to give advice on real estate investment. While they have a good understanding of stocks and shares, they have very little experience of the real estate market. Instead, you should look for an advisor who can help you structure IRA and real estate entities, evaluate investment opportunities and avoid infringing self directed IRA rules in setting up investments.

Your IRA advisor will need to have extensive knowledge of self-directed rules and the expertise to implement complex deals plus a good strong background in real estate and real estate development. Because, while an investment in a single property is probably no more difficult than buying your own home, using private funds, especially self-directed IRA funds to invest in real estate developments, real estate lots, purchasing apartment communities and other larger scale real estate investments is something that most people don't have the requisite knowledge to undertake.

A good example is rehabilitating individual residential real estate. If you have never undertaken this kind of work, it can be a very risky business. Without substantial amount of real estate investment experience, you can easily lose your IRA retirement money. It is very important to have an appropriate real estate advisor who understands where to find to good real estate opportunities and knows what a realistic real estate investment and realistic rate of return is and how to appropriately manage a real estate rehabilitation or real estate development project from start to finish. Mainstream do-it-yourself TV shows showing rehabilitation projects are a case in point as the majority of people go over budget during the rehabilitation and the majority of times lose money. Don't let this happen to your retirement.

Ability to offer advice has to be accompanied by permissibility to offer advice. A self directed IRA custodian (as opposed to a self directed IRA advisor) may not offer any investment advice to an investor. It is prohibited. They must maintain a neutral position and can only give you advice on the IRS regulations and their firm's investment policies. Therefore, an IRA custodian cannot offer advice on real estate transactions, which is a good thing because their primary purpose is to hold account holders monies.

In short, real estate investment is a realistic option for most investors looking to diversify their holdings, but the key to benefiting from it is getting the right advice from the right source.

Joshua Geary with Asset Exchange Strategies is an avid writer, business strategist and online marketing consultant. For more information on how you can get checkbook control of your IRA and turn your self directed IRA into a wealth magnet visit the link.