The Real Deal New York

Real estate buyers can tap retirement accounts

November 27, 2007
By Philana Patterson

As the interest in the real estate boom has intensified, financial planners say more of their clients are asking about and actually using funds from their Individual Retirement Accounts to buy real estate.

It’s a reflection of the sustained market boom, where people follow hot investing trends, said Anthony LaGiglia, a financial planner at J. J. Burns & Co. in Melville, N.Y. “It’s like when Internet stocks were the rage,” he said, “and that’s where everyone wanted their money to be.”

With cable shows such as TLC’s “Property Ladder” and A & E’s “Flip This House” showcasing the process of buying homes, fixing them up and selling them at a profit, it’s no wonder that people are looking for more ways to turn retirement funds into real estate investments.

People with IRAs can access cash, without paying taxes or penalties, to make real estate investments by transferring funds to self-directed plans.

For real estate brokers, the process is pretty much the same as any other real estate transaction except many brokers don’t know that it’s an option for their clients, say self-directed IRA custodians.

A number of companies such as Pensco Trust Co., Fiserv Inc., Equity Trust Co., and the Entrust Group Inc. offer self-directed IRA plans, which allow people to put money into a variety of investment sectors, including real estate. Like a traditional IRA, taxes are deferred until users begin taking distributions, which they are eligible to do, without penalty, at age 59, as with any other IRA plan.

“For the [real estate broker] the biggest issue is that they make sure the property is only for investment property not for a primary residence,” said Tom Anderson, president and chief executive of IRA custodian Pensco Trust.

In fact, in many cases, as long as the customer has already set up a self-directed IRA, the transaction may be even more attractive to a seller because it’s essentially an all-cash sale.

For the Internal Revenue Service, the main concern is making sure the owner of the IRA can’t actually live in the property or manage it himself, because the legal owner of the property is the IRA itself, and funds used to manage it must come from the plan. The IRS also bars immediate relatives such as spouses, parents and children from residing in the property.

Proceeds from the property, whether from a sale or cash flow from rent, go back into the IRA. The normal rules for fund withdrawals from IRAs apply to these transactions.

Some critics of using IRA funds to invest in real estate say it’s not a realistic option for most Americans because many don’t have huge balances in their IRAs. At the end of 2002, the average American had just under $27,000 in an IRA, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute which wouldn’t go very far in New York City. Investing in New York City real estate is particularly difficult, even for someone with a hefty IRA balance the large percentage of co-ops in the city makes it tough.

“People don’t buy a lot of co-ops because many have restrictions about renting them out,” said Hugh Bromma, chief executive of the Entrust Group. “What we see is a lot of condos, single-family homes and commercial property such as small strip centers.”

Funds for improvements must come from the IRA; federal tax limits on how much a person can contribute to his IRA each year limits the amount of money that might be available if the property is not producing any or enough income. In 2002 through 2004, the annual contribution limit for both traditional and Roth IRAs was $3,000. The contribution limit increased to $4,000 in 2005.

Still, proponents of real estate investing with IRAs point out that a mix of resources can be used to buy the property, including money from the IRA, cash from the IRA’s owner, and non-recourse loans. A person can lift an IRA balance considerably by transferring money from an employee- sponsored retirement plan such as a 401K from a former employer into an IRA. And a group of investors can also pool money from their IRAs and form a limited liability company (LLC) to make a real estate purchase through a self-directed plan.

Many self-directed fund custodians say that using IRA funds for real estate investing is best-suited for savvy investors and that people who choose to use IRA funds to buy real estate should consult an accountant to help them through the process.

Many of the people who have decided to put real estate into IRAs are taking advantage of the boom in the real estate market, after being disappointed with recent returns in the securities market.

A lot of people “are not happy with stocks,” Anderson said. “If they have some exposure to real estate and enough money in their IRA they will put some of their IRA funds into real estate.”

Financial planners recommend that people evaluate their entire investment portfolio before investing IRA funds into real estate and to not get caught up in the fervor they’ve seen in the real estate market over the last several years. If they want exposure to real estate in their portfolio, they might consider investing in a real estate investment trust, or REIT.

“For the long road, real estate is a good investment,” said Bill Abrams, an attorney and certified financial planner at Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson LLP. He said he’s had a number of clients in their 30s and 40s ask about using IRA funds to buy real estate. “But I doubt what we’ve seen will go on forever.”

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