Self-directed IRAs are not for the average retiree or the faint of heart. These specialized retirement accounts let investors do things they can't in an ordinary IRA, like invest directly in alternative assets, including cryptocurrencies, real estate or a private business. A second property, which many retirees invest in for income, could be purchased as an IRA asset using a self-directed account.
Like ordinary IRAs, assets grow tax-free inside a self-directed account, giving a real estate investor, for example, a way to rent properties or buy and sell them using IRA savings while postponing the taxes on any income or capital gains. "A self-directed IRA would delay those taxes until you withdraw from your plan so you can re-invest all the profits from the sale without having to reduce the net gains by paying taxes now," says Grey Merryman, head of wealth planning at Atlantic Union Bank's Wealth Management Division.
This freedom, however, means more ways for retirees to land in trouble with their hard-earned savings by investing in something that isn't remotely suitable. In fact, partly because of the problems with alternative assets, these accounts have a lot more going against them than for them, and even investing in a second home this way has disadvantages. Consider these risks.
You're Not as Diversified as You Think
Alternative assets are often touted as a way to diversify your portfolio because they don't move in lockstep with stocks or bonds, but many alternative assets, like cryptocurrency, are inherently high risk. What's more, buying some alternative assets directly often requires a sizable chunk of your savings. A local business or real estate typically isn't a small purchase. Sinking a lot of money into one investment is the opposite of diversification. To diversify using alternative assets like real estate or commodities, stick to mutual funds that invest broadly in them. You can buy these funds with an ordinary IRA.
You Get No Guidance
You can't open a self-directed IRA with mainstream brokerage firms, like Vanguard or Fidelity. Instead, you must work with a specialty custodian, like Equity Trust Co. or IRA Financial, without any guidance or advice. Self-directed IRA custodians don't give investment advice "because they do not perform any of the due diligence or accept any responsibility for investment selection, suitability or best interest of the investor," says Merryman.
As part of their contracts, self-directed IRA custodians only agree to handle the administrative work for your account. It's up to you to make sure the investments are appropriate, safe and legitimate, but that won't be easy to do. Alternative assets have less government oversight and are usually less transparent than publicly traded stocks and bonds. Consequently, you will need to hire and pay an independent professional, such as an investment adviser, accountant or attorney, to vet any major investment, says Chase Insogna, president of InsognaCPA in Austin, Texas.
There's Potential for Fraud
Not only can the investments themselves be opaque, but the Securities and Exchange Commission warns that criminals prey on those with self-directed IRAs or encourage people to set one up in order to sell them a fraudulent investment. "Red flags for fraud can include brand new investment companies with no track record, claims for unreasonably high levels of return or a lack of thirdparty oversight, such as audits from a reputable CPA firm," says Ryan Shuchman, an investment adviser and partner at Cornerstone Financial in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Fraudsters often fool unsuspecting investors by telling them any investment that a self-directed IRA custodian accepts must be legitimate, which isn't true. Remember, the custodian doesn't verify the investment; it just handles the administrative work. To be clear, "this fraud isn't from the IRA custodians or the self-directed IRA, but rather the type of investments," Insogna says.
You'll Pay Hefty Fees
Self-directed IRAs aren't cheap. Along with transaction fees, the IRA custodian can also charge an account setup fee, an annual fee and a fee per asset held in your account. These fees range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per year, depending on the account size, the number of investments made and the IRA custodian. The same investments made outside of a retirement account wouldn't have any of these extra fees.
RMDs Still Apply
As self-directed IRAs are retirement plans, you'll still need to take required minimum distributions once you turn 72. That can be tricky to do if you're investing in assets that aren't easily cashed in, although there is a Roth IRA version of a self-directed IRA. Like ordinary Roth IRAs, the self-directed version is funded with post-tax dollars for tax-free withdrawals in retirement and has no RMDs.
You Lose Key Advantages with Real Estate
Even owning property in these accounts is only a good idea for an experienced real estate investor with a proven track record of successful deals, says Shuchman. "You've got the risk both of the deal going bad plus the opportunity cost of not growing your savings in the market," he says. Real estate investors can also kiss goodbye many of the benefits associated with investing in property.
The IRS has rules for self-directed IRAs, and one of them is that you cannot use or manage the assets personally. "If you buy a beach house as an investment, you or your friends can't stay there for free. If the wind blows off the storm gutter, you cannot fix it yourself but need to hire a professional, using cash from your IRA balance," says Merryman. If you get caught breaking these rules, the IRS could void your entire IRA, forcing you to take out the balance, not just the problem asset, which could mean a sizable tax bill and the loss of future tax benefits on those savings.
You also miss out on tax breaks for owning the investments outright. It's the IRA that holds title to the property, not you personally, and your IRA doesn't pay taxes each year. That's a problem for real estate investors as they won't be allowed to claim annual deductions for repairs, mortgage interest, depreciation, property taxes or losses against other personal income. Meanwhile, the fees from a self-directed IRA can wreak havoc with your profit margin.
Insogna says the $600 fees his self-directed IRA charged annually ate into his profit margin for rental income, and the deferred taxes didn't seem to make up for it. Insogna regrets using a self-directed IRA for a 2009 real estate deal. "I would have been better off just cashing out my IRA balance, even with the 10% penalty [for someone younger than 59½], given the fees and missed tax breaks."
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