Category Archives: Self-Directed Traditional IRAs

What’s in a Name? – Why It’s Important to Name a Beneficiary for Your IRA

By H. Quincy Long

             Many people probably don’t think too much about how important it is to name a beneficiary for their IRAs.  However, as my family recently found out, ignoring this important detail when setting up your IRA can be costly from a tax perspective.

             I recently received a distribution check from an IRA of my father, who passed away last year.  My father was a very careful planner, so I was quite shocked at his lack of tax planning with his IRA.  When setting up his IRA he named his estate as the beneficiary of the IRA (this is equivalent to not naming a beneficiary at all).  This meant that when he passed away the estate had to be probated, even though the IRAs were the only assets requiring probate in his estate.  IRAs that have named beneficiaries are generally non-probate assets, meaning that they pass directly to the beneficiaries instead of passing through a will.  That was the first problem. 

The larger problem came because of the lack of choices he left us by naming his estate as beneficiary.  In a Traditional IRA, required minimum distributions must begin no later than April 1 of the year after the IRA owner turns age 70 ½.  This is known as the required beginning date.  My father died before his required beginning date.  Since his estate is a non-individual beneficiary, the IRA had to be distributed within 5 years, or by December 31, 2011.  If my father had died after his required beginning date without having a named individual beneficiary, the yearly required minimum distributions would have been based on his remaining life expectancy in the year of his death reduced by one for each year following the year of his death. 

In contrast, the choices available to our family had my father simply named beneficiaries would have been much more favorable.  Assuming my father wanted his wife and 3 sons to split the IRA in the same percentages he listed in the will, he could have named us specifically instead of requiring the distribution to be made through his estate.  If the IRA was not split into separate IRAs by September 30 of the year following the year of his death, then required minimum distributions would have been based on the remaining life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary, which was of course his wife.  As his wife is a few years younger than he was, this certainly would have been a large improvement over taking the entire IRA over the next 5 years.

Had my father named the 4 of us as beneficiaries specifically, an even better plan would have been to separate the IRAs into 4 beneficiary IRAs with each of us as the sole beneficiary prior to September 30 of 2007 (the year following his death).  In his wife’s case this would mean that she could choose to take all the money out within 5 tax years, leave the IRA as a beneficiary IRA, thereby allowing her to take distributions without penalty even if she was under age 59 1/2, or she could have elected to treat the IRA as her own.  In the case of his sons, we could have

taken the IRA over 5 years or we could have stretched the distributions over our life expectancy.  For example, in my case I could have elected to take the distributions over the next 39 years instead of all at once!

Since I expected nothing from my father’s estate and have no critical need for the funds, I would have taken the longer distribution period.  Instead I must add the distribution check to my taxable income for this year, which in my tax bracket means a substantial bite out of the money for taxes.  Since I am reasonably good at investing in my self-directed IRAs, having the ability to stretch the distributions out over 39 years would have meant an inheritance of many times what I will end up with after taxes because I had to take it all within 5 years.

The problem is even worse for my father’s wife, who will have an extraordinarily large tax burden this year, since she chose to take her share of the IRA out all at once instead of over a 5 year period.  While I am certainly grateful that my father thought of me in his will, simply naming specific beneficiaries would have made his legacy worth so much more to his family. 

Don’t let it happen to your family!  Review your IRA beneficiary designations, and if you haven’t already done so, name your beneficiaries.  Your family will be glad you did.

Using Self-Directed IRAs and 401(k)s to More Money Now and to Build Your Retirement Wealth for the Future

By H. Quincy Long

            Self-directed IRAs and 401(k) plans have been around for more than 25 years, but many people are just now becoming aware of how powerful this idea can be.  There are currently trillions of dollars in retirement plans.  Do you know how to unlock your own retirement funds as well as the retirement funds of those within your circle of influence for real estate related and other non-traditional investments?  Your knowledge of self-directed retirement plans can help make you money now as well as ensuring that you retire in style.

            Plans available for self-direction.  A lot of retirement wealth is in traditional IRAs and employer sponsored plans.  If you leave an employer, the funds in the employer plan can be moved into a self-directed traditional IRA.  This includes money rolled over from 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, 457 deferred compensation plans, and the federal thrift savings plan.  Self-employed people may have their own Individual 401(k) plan, which may even include the new Roth 401(k), no matter what their income level.  Other employer sponsored plans which can be self-directed are SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs.

            The king of all IRAs when it comes to building tax free wealth is the Roth IRA.  Even if you do not qualify for a Roth IRA due to income limitations currently, in 2010 the income limitation for conversions from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA will be eliminated.  At that point even the very wealthy will be entitled to have a Roth IRA.  This is a great planning opportunity.

            How does paying for your child’s education or your health care expenses with tax free income sound?  You can even self-direct a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) or a Health Savings Account (HSA), and as long as distributions are for qualified education or health care expenses they are TAX FREE FOREVER.  With an HSA you even get a tax deduction for putting the money in!

            Perhaps the best news of all is that you may combine your IRAs and other self-directed plans to make non-traditional investments.  Even better, you can invest your IRAs with other people’s IRAs or even non-IRA money of people you know.  The key element is that you must have your plans administered at a self-directed IRA company like Quest IRA, Inc.

            Make money now.  We have all heard that knowledge is power.  Your knowledge of self-directed retirement plans can translate into money in your pocket today.  How?  It’s easy!  While it is true that you may not derive a current benefit from your own IRA’s investments, this does not mean that you cannot benefit right now from Other People’s IRAs (OPI).  Simply become knowledgeable about self-directed plans by reading books and attending seminars or workshops, then spread the good news!

            Quest IRA, Inc has many seminars and workshops to help you and those whose IRAs you want to use to make money for yourself.  There are also numerous books on the market explaining the power of self-directed retirement plans, such as Hubert Bromma’s “Investing in Real Estate With Your IRA and 401(k)” which are selling quickly.  For more information on seminars and workshops in your area, visit the Quest IRA website at www.QuestIRA.com  Even if you don’t have a dime of retirement funds yourself, you can use your knowledge to:

            *          Borrow other people’s IRA money to do your deals today

            *          Sell real estate, notes or other non-traditional assets to people’s IRAs

*          Make others aware of an opportunity to invest in your business (always be aware of securities laws when raising money)

            Anytime you go to a gathering of people, there are most likely millions of dollars available for non-traditional investments in their retirement plans.  It is up to you to let people know about this powerful tool, and how they can take some or all of that anemic money and put it to work in a way that benefits both you and them.  You will look highly intelligent and will inspire confidence with your advanced knowledge.  You owe it to yourself to learn more today.  Quest IRA, Inc. can help.

            Invest your own IRA in what you know best.  With all your knowledge of self-directed IRAs, you will most likely want to invest your own retirement funds in non-traditional investments as well.  What investments do you know the most about?  Almost without exception, you can invest in what you know best with your own IRA.  The law contains very few investment restrictions for retirement plans, but most custodians refuse to allow IRAs to invest in non-traditional investments such as real estate simply because they are not set up to handle them.  Not true with Quest IRA, Inc.!

            Quest IRA, Inc. self-directed retirement plans are under the same laws as plans at any other custodian or administrator.  We are simply more flexible when it comes to administering non-traditional investments in your IRA or other self-directed plan.  Quest IRA, Inc. clients have used their retirement plans to purchase all of the following and much more:  real estate, both foreign and domestic, including debt leveraged real estate, real estate options, loans secured by real estate, unsecured loans, limited partnership interests, limited liability company shares, stock in non-publicly traded corporations, land trusts, factored invoices (including factored real estate commissions), tax lien certificates, foreclosure property, joint ventures, oil and gas interests and even race horse colts!  You are limited only by your imagination.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it will not make you wealthy.  Use your knowledge of self-directed IRAs to make money now, to help others build their retirement wealth as well as your own, and to retire in the style and comfort in which you would like to become accustomed.  Contact Quest IRA, Inc. today!

Either a Lender or Borrower Be

By:  H. Quincy Long         

            Personally, I think Shakespeare had it wrong when he penned this advice in Hamlet:  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”  Perhaps he may be forgiven for his error, however, since Shakespeare suffered from a lack of the tremendous benefits of a truly self-directed IRA. 

            Money in self-directed IRAs can be loaned out to any person who is not a “disqualified person.”  While this means that you cannot loan yourself or other related disqualified persons money from your self-directed IRA, you can loan the money to anyone else.  Loans can be secured by real estate, mobile homes, equipment or anything you like.  If you are really a trusting soul, you can even make a loan from your IRA unsecured (although in that case I personally would tend to support Shakespeare’s advice).

            First, let’s look at it from the borrower’s perspective.  At our office we offer a seminar entitled “Make Money Now With Self-Directed IRAs.”  One of the ways you can make money for yourself right now with your knowledge of self-directed IRAs is by creating your own “private bank.”  To do this, simply share the news that an IRA can be a private lender, refer people with IRA money to Quest IRA, Inc. to open a self-directed IRA, and then borrow their IRA money for your own financing needs.

            With private financing the loan terms can be whatever the borrower and the lender agree to within the legal limits.  If you know a person who is getting 5% in a “safe” IRA at a bank, and you can offer them 9% secured by a first lien on real estate with only a 70% loan to value, would they be happy with that?  Even with a higher interest rate, private financing can work for you. IRA loans can be done quickly and without a lot of fees or fuss, which may mean you can get a deal which might be lost if you had to wait on the bank.  This is especially true in distressed sale situations, such as a pre-foreclosure purchase.

            From a lending perspective, your IRA can grow at a nice rate while someone else does all the work.  In a typical hard money loan, the borrower even pays all of Quest IRA, Inc. modest fees as well as any legal fees for preparation of the loan documents.  True, you won’t hit a home run with lending, unless you are fortunate enough to foreclose on the collateral.  But the returns can be quite solid.  For example, by making very conservative hard money loans my Mom’s IRA has grown by about 10.5% in one year.  This is much better than the amount she was earning in her money market fund before she moved her IRA to an Quest IRA, Inc. self-directed IRA. 

            Even small IRAs can combine with other self-directed accounts to make a hard money loan.  My brother recently combined his Roth IRA, his traditional IRA, his wife’s Roth IRA, his son’s Roth IRA, his Health Savings Account (HSA), and 5 other IRAs to make a hard money loan.  The smallest IRA participating in this loan was for $1,827.00!  Each IRA made 2% up front and 12% interest on an 18 month loan, secured by a first lien on real estate with no more than 70% loan to value.

            One thing to avoid in hard money lending is usury.  Usury is defined as contracting for or receiving interest above the legal limit.  The usury limit varies from state to state, with a few lucky states having no usury limit at all on commercial loans.  Some people have the theory of “What’s a little usury among friends?”  However, if the investment goes bad and your IRA has made a usurious loan, the consequences of the borrower making a claim of usury could include the loss of all the principal of the loan plus damages equal to 3 times the interest.  Some states even have criminal usury statutes.  It is best to consult with a competent attorney prior to making a hard money loan to make sure your IRA does not violate any usury laws.

            To see how well hard money lending can work, let me give you an actual example.  One of our clients made a hard money loan from his IRA to an investor who purchased a property needing rehab.  The terms of the loan were 15% interest with no points or other fees except for the attorney who drew up the loan documents.  The loan included not only the purchase price but also the estimated rehab costs.  The minimum interest due on the loan was 3 months, or 3.75%.  The investor began the rehab by having the slab repaired, and before he could take the next step in the rehab process, a person offered him a fair price for the property as is.  The investor accepted the offer, and they closed about 6 weeks after the loan was initiated.

            From the investor’s perspective, was this a good deal?  Yes, it certainly was!  True, he was paying a relatively high interest rate for the time he borrowed the money.  However, he was able to purchase a property with substantial equity which a bank most likely would not have loaned him money to buy due to the condition of the property.  Also, while the interest rate was high, the cost of financing was actually comparatively low.  With a normal bank or mortgage company there are fees and expenses incurred in obtaining the loan.  Common fees include origination fees, discount points, processing fees, underwriting fees, appraisal fees and various other expenses relating to the loan.  On the surface an interest rate may be 8%, but the cost of the financing is actually higher than 8% since a borrower has to pay the lender’s fees in addition to the interest on the loan.  Spread out over a lengthy loan term these additional fees do not add much to the cost of the financing.  However, if an investor has to pay all of these fees up front and then pays the loan off in only 6 weeks, the cost of the financing goes way up. 

            In this case the investor’s total loan costs were limited to 3 months minimum interest at 3.75% plus $300 in attorney’s fees for preparing the loan documents.  Best of all, the investor walked away from closing with $20,000 profit and no money out of his pocket!  Far from “dulling the edge of husbandry” this loan actually made the “husbandry” (ie. the purchase and resale of the property) possible.  Incidentally, the purchaser of the property was absolutely thrilled to get the property at less than full market value so that they could fix it up the way that they wanted it.

            What about the lender in this case?  The lender was also quite happy with this loan.  His IRA received 3 months of interest at 15% while only having his money loaned out for 6 weeks.  For the 6 week period of the investment, his IRA grew at a rate of approximately 30% per annum!  Although his yield was above the legal limit for interest in Texas on loans secured by real estate, prepayment penalties are generally not included in the calculation of usury here, so there was no problem.  The investor was happy, the new homeowner was happy, and the lender was happy.  Anytime you can create an investment opportunity with a win-win-win scenario, you should.

            When I lecture about hard money lending, I ask the audience what they think is the worst thing that happens if you are a hard money lender.  Invariably, most people in the audience answer that you have to foreclose on the property.  Nonsense!  If you are doing hard money lending correctly, the worst thing that can happen is that the borrower pays you back!  Unfortunately, this is a common risk of hard money lending.  Most hard money loans are made at 70% or less of the fair market value of the property.  If you are fortunate enough to foreclose on a hard money loan, your IRA will have acquired a property with substantial equity while the investor did all the work of finding and rehabbing the property! 

            While it is true that foreclosing on a property owned by a friend may cause an end to that friendship, a properly secured hard money loan will at least not “lose itself” as Shakespeare asserts.  In fact, it may lead to substantial profit for your IRA!  To avoid losing a friend, simply don’t loan money from your IRA to someone you would feel bad foreclosing on.  In order to be a successful hard money lender, you do have to be prepared to foreclose on the property if necessary.

            In modern times I believe the proper advice, at least in the right circumstances, is “Either a lender or a borrower be!”  You can make more money for yourself right now by borrowing OPI (Other People’s IRAs).  Borrowing from someone else’s IRA can even lower the total cost of your financing compared to a conventional loan from a bank or mortgage company, especially on short term financing.  From a lending perspective, your IRA can make great returns by being a hard money lender, either through higher than average interest rates or, better yet, through foreclosing on property with equity.  You may find that hard money lending from your self-directed IRA is a great way to boost your retirement savings without a lot of time and energy invested on your part.

The Truth About Self-Directed IRAs and Other Accounts

By H. Quincy Long

There is a lot of confusion over self-directed IRAs and what is and is not possible.In this article we will disprove some of the more common self-directed IRA myths.

Myth #1 – Purchasing anything other than CDs, stocks, mutual funds or annuities is illegal in an IRA.

Truth:The only prohibitions contained in the Internal Revenue Code for IRAs are investments in life insurance contracts and in “collectibles”, which are defined to include any work of art, any rug or antique, any metal or gem (with certain exceptions for gold, silver, platinum or palladium bullion), any stamp or coin (with certain exceptions for gold, silver, or platinum coins issued by the United States or under the laws of any State), any alcoholic beverage, or any other tangible personal property specified by the Secretary of the Treasury (no other property has been specified as of this date).

Since there are so few restrictions contained in the law, almost anything else which can be documented can be purchased in your IRA.A “self-directed” IRA allows any investment not expressly prohibited by law.Common investment choices include real estate, both domestic and foreign, options, secured and unsecured notes, including first and second liens against real estate, C corporation stock, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, trusts and a whole lot more.

Myth #2 – Only Roth IRAs can be self-directed.

Truth: Because of the power of tax free wealth accumulation in a self-directed Roth IRA, many articles are written on how to use a Roth IRA to invest in non-traditional investments.As a result, it is a surprisingly common misconception that a Roth IRA is the only account which can be self-directed.In fact, there are seven different types of accounts which can be self-directed.They are the 1) Roth IRA, 2) the Traditional IRA, 3) the SEP IRA, 4) the SIMPLE IRA, 5) the Individual 401(k), including the Roth 401(k), 6) the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA, formerly known as the Education IRA), and 7) the Health Savings Account (HSA).Not only can all of these accounts invest in non-traditional investments as indicated in Myth #1, but they can be combined together to purchase a single investment.

Myth #3 – I don’t qualify for a self-directed Roth or Traditional IRA because I am covered by a retirement plan at work or because I make too much money.

Truth:Almost anyone can have a self-directed account of some type.Although there are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA (in 2008 the income limits are $169,000 for a married couple filing jointly and $116,000 for a single person or head of household), having a plan at work does not affect your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA, and there is no age limit either.With a Traditional IRA, you or your spouse having a retirement plan at work does affect the deductibility of your contribution, but anyone with earned income who is under age 70 1/2 can contribute to a Traditional IRA.There are no upper income limits for contributing to a Traditional IRA.Also, a Traditional IRA can receive funds from a prior employer’s 401(k) or other qualified plan.Additionally, you may be able to contribute to a Coverdell ESA for your children or grandchildren, nieces, nephews or even my children, if you are so inclined.If you have the right type of health insurance, called a High Deductible Health Plan, you can contribute to an HSA regardless of your income level.With an HSA, you may deduct your contributions to the account and qualified distributions are tax free forever!It’s the best of both worlds.All of this is in addition to any retirement plan you have at your job or for your self-employed business.

Myth #4 – I can’t have a self-directed 401(k) plan for my business because I am self-employed and file a Schedule C for my income.

Truth:You can have a self-directed SEP IRA, a SIMPLE IRA or a 401(k) plan even if you are self-employed and file your income on Schedule C of your personal tax return.With a SEP IRA, you can contribute up to 20% of your net earnings from self-employment (calculated by deducting one-half of your self-employment tax from your net profits as shown on Schedule C) or 25% of your wages from an employer, up to a maximum of $46,000 for 2008.With the SIMPLE IRA, you can defer up to the first $10,500 of your net earnings from self-employment (calculated by multiplying your net Schedule C income by 0.9235% for SIMPLE IRA purposes), plus an additional $2,500 of your net earnings if you are age 50 by the end of the year, plus you can contribute an additional 3% of your net earnings as an employer contribution.Beginning in 2002 even self-employed persons are entitled to have their own 401(k) plan.Better yet, in 2006 the Roth 401(k) was added, allowing even high income earners to contribute after tax dollars into an account where qualified distributions are tax free forever!With an Individual 401(k) you can defer up to $15,500 (for 2007 and 2008) of your net earnings from self-employment (calculated by deducting one-half of your self-employment tax from your net profits as shown on Schedule C), plus an additional $5,000 of your net earnings if you reach age 50 by the end of the year, plus you can contribute as much as an additional $30,500 based on up to 20% of your net earnings for2008 (or 25% of your wages from an employer).This means that a 50 plus year old self-employed person can contribute up to $51,000 for 2008!

Myth #5 – Because I have a small IRA and can only contribute $5,000, it’s not worth having a self-directed IRA.

Truth:Even small balance accounts can participate in non-traditional investing.Small balance accounts can be co-invested with larger accounts owned by you or even other people.For example, one recent hard money loan we funded had 10 different accounts participating.The smallest account to participate was for only $1,827.00!There are at least 4 ways you can participate in real estate investment even with a small IRA.First, you can wholesale property.You simply put the contract in the name of your IRA instead of your name.The earnest money comes from the IRA.When you assign the contract, the assignment fee goes back into your IRA.If using a Roth IRA, this profit is tax-free forever!Second, you can purchase an option on real estate, which then can be either exercised, assigned to a third party, or canceled for a fee.Third, you can purchase property in your IRA subject to existing financing or with a non-recourse loan from a bank, a hard money lender, a financial friend or a motivated seller.Profits from debt-financed property in your IRA may incur unrelated business income tax (UBIT), however.Finally, as mentioned above, your IRA can be a partner with other IRA or non-IRA investors.

Myth # 6 – If I want to purchase non-traditional investments in an IRA, I must first establish an LLC which will be owned by my IRA.

Truth:A very popular idea in the marketplace right now is that you can invest your IRA in an LLC where you (the IRA owner) are the manager of the LLC.Effectively you have “checkbook control” of your IRA funds.Providers generally charge thousands of dollars to set up these LLCs and sometimes mislead people into thinking that this is necessary to invest in real estate or other non-traditional investments.This is simply not true.Not only can an IRA hold title to real estate and other non-traditional investments directly with companies such as Quest IRA, Inc., but having “checkbook control” of your IRA funds through an LLC can lead to many traps for the unwary.Far from protecting your IRA from the prohibited transaction rules, these setups may in fact lead to an inadvertent prohibited transaction, which may cause your IRA to be distributed to you, sometimes with substantial penalties.This is not to say that there are not times when having your IRA make an investment through an LLC is a good idea, especially for asset protection purposes.Nonetheless, you must educate yourself completely as to the rules before deciding on this route.Having a “checkbook control” IRA owned LLC is kind of like skydiving without a parachute – it may be fun on the way down, but eventually you are likely to go SPLAT!

Myth #7 – I can borrow money from my IRA to purchase a vacation home for myself.

Truth:Although the Internal Revenue Code lists very few investment restrictions, certain transactions (as opposed to investments) are considered to be prohibited.If your IRA enters into a prohibited transaction, there are severe consequences, so it is important to understand what constitutes a prohibited transaction.

Essentially, the prohibited transaction rules were made to discourage disqualified persons from dealing with the assets of the plan in a self-dealing manner, either directly or indirectly. The assets of a plan are to be invested in a manner which benefits the plan itself and not the IRA owner (other than as a beneficiary of the IRA) or any other disqualified person.Investment transactions are supposed to be on an arms length basis.

As a result of these legal restrictions, a loan from your IRA or staying at a vacation home owned by your IRA, even if fair market rates are paid for interest or rent, would be prohibited.

Myth #8 – With a self-directed IRA, I can borrow my IRA funds to purchase real estate and then put all the profits back into the IRA.

Truth:When real estate or any other asset is purchased within a self-directed IRA, the money never leaves the IRA at all.Instead, the IRA exchanges cash for the asset, in the same way that an IRA at a brokerage house exchanges cash for shares of stock or a mutual fund.Therefore, the asset must be held in the name of the IRA.For example, if Max N. Vestor were to purchase an investment house in his self-directed IRA, the title would be held as “Quest IRA, Inc. FBO Max N. Vestor IRA #12345-11.”Since the IRA owns the asset, all expenses associated with the asset must be paid by the IRA and all profit resulting from that investment belongs to the IRA, including rents received and gains from the sale of the asset.

Myth #9 – If my IRA buys real estate, it must pay all cash for the property.An IRA cannot buy real estate with debt.

Truth:An IRA can own debt-financed property, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as an LLC or partnership.Any debt must be non-recourse to the IRA and to any disqualified person.An IRA may have to pay Unrelated Debt Financed Income Tax (UDFIT) on its profits from debt-financed property.In general, taxes must be paid on profits from an IRA-owned property that is debt-financed, including profits from the sale or disposition of the property, in the same proportion that it had debt.For a simplified example, if the IRA puts 50% down, then 50% of its profits above $1,000 will be taxable.Although at first this sounds terrible, in fact leverage can be an extremely powerful tool in building your retirement wealth.The same leverage principle applies inside or outside of your IRA – you can do more with debt-financing than you can without it.One client was able to build her Roth IRA from $3,000 to over $33,000 in less than 4 months even after paying the taxes due by taking over a property subject to a debt and selling the property to another investor!

Myth #10 – An IRA cannot own a business.

Truth:A self-directed IRA is an amazingly flexible wealth building tool and can own almost anything, including a business.However, due to the conflict of interest rules you cannot work for a business owned by your IRA and get paid.Some companies have a plan to start a C corporation, adopt a 401(k) plan, roll an IRA into the 401(k) plan and purchase employer securities to effectively start a new business, but this is not a direct investment by the IRA in the business and is fairly expensive to set up.Also, if your IRA owns an interest in a business, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as an LLC or partnership, the IRA may owe Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) on its profits from the business.A solution to this problem may be to have the business owned by a C corporation or another taxable entity.

How to Pay for Education Expenses With Tax-Free Dollars

Many people are under the mistaken impression that a Roth IRA is the only type of self-directed account from which tax free distributions can be taken.  However, distributions from Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) can be tax free if they are for qualified expenses.  In this article we will discuss the benefits of the Coverdell Education Savings Account and, more importantly, what investments you can make with a self-directed ESA.
Contributions.  Contributions to a Coverdell ESA may be made until the designated beneficiary reaches age 18, unless the beneficiary is a special needs beneficiary.  The maximum contribution is $2,000 per year per beneficiary (no matter how many different contributors or accounts) and may be made until the contributor’s tax filing deadline, not including extensions (for individuals, generally April 15 of the following year).  The contribution is not tax deductible, but distributions can be tax free, as discussed below.  Contributions may be made to both a Coverdell ESA and a Qualified Tuition Program (a 529 plan) in the same year for the same beneficiary without penalty.
To make a full contribution to a Coverdell ESA, the contributor must have Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) of less than $95,000 for a single individual or $190,000 for a married couple filing jointly.  Partial contributions may be made with MAGI as high as $110,000 for an individual and $220,000 for a married couple filing jointly.  Since there is no limit on who can contribute to a Coverdell ESA, if your MAGI is too high consider making a gift to an individual whose income is less than the limits, and they can make the contribution.  Organizations can make contributions to a Coverdell ESA without any limitation on income.

Tax Free Distributions.  The good news is that distributions from a Coverdell ESA for “qualified education expenses” are tax free.  Qualified education expenses are broadly defined and include qualified elementary and secondary education expenses (K-12) as well as qualified higher education expenses.

Qualified elementary and secondary education expenses can include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, academic tutoring and special needs services for special needs beneficiaries.  If required or provided by the school, it can also include room and board, uniforms, transportation and supplementary items and services, including extended day programs.  Even the purchase of computer technology, equipment or internet access and related services are included if they are to be used by the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s family during any of the years the beneficiary is in elementary or secondary school.

Qualified higher education expenses include required expenses for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment and special needs services.  If the beneficiary is enrolled at least half-time, some room and board may qualify for tax free reimbursement.  Most interestingly, a Qualified Tuition Program (a 529 plan) can be considered a qualified education expense.  If you believe that contributing to a 529 plan is a good deal, then contributing that money with pre-tax dollars is a great deal!

One thing to be aware of is that the money must be distributed by the time the beneficiary reaches age 30.  If not previously distributed for qualified education expenses, distributions from the account may be both taxable and subject to a 10% additional tax.  Fortunately, if it looks like the money will not be used up or if the child does not attend an eligible educational institution, the money may be rolled over to a member of the beneficiary’s family who is under age 30.  For this purpose, the beneficiary’s family includes, among others, the beneficiary’s spouse, children, parents, brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles, and even first cousins.

Investment Opportunities.  Many people question why a Coverdell ESA is so beneficial when so little can be contributed to it.  For one thing, the gift of education is a major improvement over typical gifts given by relatives to children.  Over a long period of time, investing a Coverdell ESA in mutual funds or similar investments will certainly help towards paying for the beneficiary’s education.  However, clearly the best way to pay for your child’s education is through a self-directed Coverdell ESA.

With a self-directed Coverdell ESA, you choose your ESA’s investments.  Common investment choices for self-directed accounts of all types include real estate, both domestic and foreign, options, secured and unsecured notes, including first and second liens against real estate, C corporation stock, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, trusts and much more.

With the small contribution limits for Coverdell ESAs, you might wonder how these investments can be made.  Often these accounts are combined with other self-directed accounts, including Traditional, Roth, SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Individual 401(k) plans, to make a single investment.  For example, I combined my daughters’ Coverdell ESAs with our Roth IRAs to fund a hard money loan with 2 points up front and 12% interest per year.

One client supercharged his daughter’s Coverdell ESA by placing a burned down house under contract in the ESA.  The contract price was for $5,500 and the earnest money deposit was $100.  Since the ESA was the buyer on the contract, the earnest money came from that account.  After depositing the contract with the title company, the client located another investor who specialized in rehabbing burned out houses.  The new investor agreed to pay $14,000 for the property.  At closing approximately one month later, the ESA received a check for $8,500 on its $100 investment.  That is an astounding 8,400% return in only one month!  How many people have done that well in the stock market or with a mutual fund?

But the story gets even better.  Shortly after closing, the client took a TAX FREE distribution of $3,315 to pay for his 10 year old daughter’s private school tuition.  Later that same year he took an additional $4,000 distribution.  Assuming a marginal tax rate of 28%, this means that the client saved more than $2,048 in taxes.  In effect, this is the same thing as achieving a 28% discount on his daughter’s private school tuition which he had to pay anyway!

The Coverdell ESA may be analogized to a Roth IRA, but for qualified education expenses only, in that you receive no tax deduction for contributing the money but qualified distributions are tax free forever.  Investing through a Coverdell ESA can significantly reduce the effective cost of your child or grandchild’s education.  As education costs continue to skyrocket, using the Coverdell ESA as part of your overall investment strategy can be a wise move.  With a self-directed ESA (or a self-directed IRA, 401(k) or HSA for that matter), you don’t have to “think outside the box” when it comes to your ESA’s investments.  You just have to realize that the investment box is much larger than you think!

H. Quincy Long is a Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP) and an attorney.  He is also President of Quest IRA, Inc., with offices in Houston Dallas, Texas.  He may be reached by email at Quincy@QuestIRA.com .  Nothing in this article is intended as tax, legal or investment advice.

Option Strategies for Your IRA

Many people would like to buy real estate in their IRAs but have a mistaken belief that they do not have enough money to do so.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  You may invest in real estate with your IRA without a lot of money in several ways, including partnering with other IRAs or non-IRA money, buying property with debt, or by using one of the most powerful and under utilized tools in real estate investing today – the option.

In this article we will focus on some option basics.  First, what is an option?  Once consideration for the option is paid, it is the owner’s irrevocable offer to sell the property to a buyer under the terms of the option for a certain period of time.  The buyer has the right but not the obligation to buy.

You might wonder why an owner would agree to tie up his property with an option.  Advantages to a property owner include:  1) the owner may be able to time his income for tax purposes, since option fees are generally taxable when the option is either exercised or expires (always check with your tax advisor); 2) if the owner needs money, an option may be a way to get money that he doesn’t have to repay, unlike a loan; 3) options are very flexible, and the owner may be able to negotiate an option which allows him to keep the property until a more opportune time – this is especially true of an owner in a pre-foreclosure situation.

Do the paperwork right!  Options are extremely powerful and very easy to mess up.  Be very specific, clear and complete about all the details.  Remember, with options, you have to negotiate for both the option and for the purchase of the property. With a well written option, the following must be, as my old law professor was fond of saying, “patently obvious to the most casual observer”:

a)         Who is granting the option?  Does it include heirs, successors and assigns?
b)         Who is receiving the option?  Does it include assignees of the buyer, or is it an exclusive option to purchase by the buyer only?
c)         What property is being optioned?  Property can be anything, including real estate, a beneficial interest in a land trust, a real estate note or nearly anything else.
d)         What is the consideration for the option?  Remember, there must be some consideration for the option in the form of money, services or other obligations.
e)         How is the option exercised by the buyer?  This is one of the easiest things to mess up in an option.  If the procedure is not clear for exercising the option, it is an invitation to litigation!
f)          What will be the purchase price of the property if the option is exercised?
g)         How will the purchase price be paid when the option is exercised?  Will it be for cash?  Seller financing?  Subject to the owner’s existing mortgage?
h)         Will the option consideration be credited to the option price or not?
i)          When can the option be exercised?  For example, does the option holder have the right to exercise the option at any time during the option period, or can the option only be exercised after a specified amount of time?
j)          When will the option expire, and under what circumstances?  The option should have a definite termination date, but might also include other circumstances under which the option terminates, such as a default under a lease.
k)         When it comes time to close, what are each party’s obligations?  For example, who pays for title insurance, closing costs, etc?  Are taxes prorated?

So what forms do you use?  The answer is my favorite as a lawyer – it depends! There is not and cannot be a “standard” option for all purposes.  They are simply too flexible.  You must decide on a specific use for the option and then, as Shakespeare said, “Get thee to a lawyer!” (Okay, it was “Get thee to a nunnery” but I like it better as revised!).

When you have negotiated an option agreement for your IRA, you have several choices.  First, you can let the option expire on its own terms.  Sometimes this is the best course of action if the deal is not what you expected, especially if you only paid a small amount for the option.

Another choice is that your IRA could exercise the option and buy the property.  Since there are ways to finance property being purchased by your IRA, including seller financing, bank financing, private party financing or even taking over property subject to a loan, this may be a good strategy for your IRA, even if the IRA does not have the cash to complete the purchase.  Be aware that if your IRA owns debt financed property, either directly or indirectly through an LLC or partnership, its profits from that investment will be subject to Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT).  This is not necessarily a bad way to build your retirement wealth, but it does require some understanding of the tax implications.

A third choice which is often employed in the context of self directed retirement accounts is to assign your option to a third party for a fee.  Your option agreement should specifically allow for an assignment to make sure that there are no problems with the property owner.  This is a great technique for building a small IRA into a large IRA quickly.  I had one client who put a contract on a burned house for $100 earnest money in his daughter’s Coverdell Education Savings Account, then sold his contract to a third party who specialized in repairing burned houses for $8,500.  In under 1 month the account made a profit of 8,400%, and all parties were happy with the deal!  The account holder then immediately took a TAX FREE distribution to pay for his daughter’s private school tuition.

A fourth choice that sometimes is overlooked is the ability to release the option back to the property owner for a cancellation fee.  In other words, this is a way for your IRA to get paid not to buy! Let me give you an example of how this might work.  Suppose you want to offer the seller what he would consider to be a ridiculously low offer.  When the seller balks, you say “I’ll tell you what.  You sign this option agreement for my IRA to purchase this property at my price, and we’ll put in the option agreement that I cannot exercise my option for 30 days.  If you find a buyer willing to offer you more money within that 30 day period, just reimburse my IRA the option fee plus a cancellation fee of $2,500.”  Either way, your IRA wins!

The creative use of options can make your IRA grow astronomically if done correctly.  In future articles I will be discussing different types of option strategies.

Wealth Building Options for Your IRA

Many people would like to buy real estate in their IRAs but have a mistaken belief that they do not have enough money to do so.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  You may invest in real estate with your IRA without a lot of money in several ways, including partnering with other IRAs or non-IRA money, buying property with debt, or by using one of the most powerful and under utilized tools in real estate investing today – the option.

In this article we will focus on some option basics.  First, what is an option?  Once consideration for the option is paid, it is the owner’s irrevocable offer to sell the property to a buyer under the terms of the option for a certain period of time.  The buyer has the right but not the obligation to buy.

You might wonder why an owner would agree to tie up his property with an option.  Advantages to a property owner include:  1) the owner may be able to time his income for tax purposes, since option fees are generally taxable when the option is either exercised or expires (always check with your tax advisor); 2) if the owner needs money, an option may be a way to get money that he doesn’t have to repay, unlike a loan; 3) options are very flexible, and the owner may be able to negotiate an option which allows him to keep the property until a more opportune time – this is especially true of an owner in a pre-foreclosure situation.

Do the paperwork right!  Options are extremely powerful and very easy to mess up.  Be very specific, clear and complete about all the details.  Remember, with options, you have to negotiate for both the option and for the purchase of the property. With a well written option, the following must be, as my old law professor was fond of saying, “patently obvious to the most casual observer”:

a)         Who is granting the option?  Does it include heirs, successors and assigns?
b)         Who is receiving the option?  Does it include assignees of the buyer, or is it an exclusive option to purchase by the buyer only?
c)         What property is being optioned?  Property can be anything, including real estate, a beneficial interest in a land trust, a real estate note or nearly anything else.
d)         What is the consideration for the option?  Remember, there must be some consideration for the option in the form of money, services or other obligations.
e)         How is the option exercised by the buyer?  This is one of the easiest things to mess up in an option.  If the procedure is not clear for exercising the option, it is an invitation to litigation!
f)          What will be the purchase price of the property if the option is exercised?
g)         How will the purchase price be paid when the option is exercised?  Will it be for cash?  Seller financing?  Subject to the owner’s existing mortgage?
h)         Will the option consideration be credited to the option price or not?
i)          When can the option be exercised?  For example, does the option holder have the right to exercise the option at any time during the option period, or can the option only be exercised after a specified amount of time?
j)          When will the option expire, and under what circumstances?  The option should have a definite termination date, but might also include other circumstances under which the option terminates, such as a default under a lease.
k)         When it comes time to close, what are each party’s obligations?  For example, who pays for title insurance, closing costs, etc?  Are taxes prorated?

So what forms do you use?  The answer is my favorite as a lawyer – it depends! There is not and cannot be a “standard” option for all purposes.  They are simply too flexible.  You must decide on a specific use for the option and then, as Shakespeare said, “Get thee to a lawyer!” (Okay, it was “Get thee to a nunnery” but I like it better as revised!).

When you have negotiated an option agreement for your IRA, you have several choices.  First, you can let the option expire on its own terms.  Sometimes this is the best course of action if the deal is not what you expected, especially if you only paid a small amount for the option.

Another choice is that your IRA could exercise the option and buy the property.  Since there are ways to finance property being purchased by your IRA, including seller financing, bank financing, private party financing or even taking over property subject to a loan, this may be a good strategy for your IRA, even if the IRA does not have the cash to complete the purchase.  Be aware that if your IRA owns debt financed property, either directly or indirectly through an LLC or partnership, its profits from that investment will be subject to Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT).  This is not necessarily a bad way to build your retirement wealth, but it does require some understanding of the tax implications.

A third choice which is often employed in the context of self directed retirement accounts is to assign your option to a third party for a fee.  Your option agreement should specifically allow for an assignment to make sure that there are no problems with the property owner.  This is a great technique for building a small IRA into a large IRA quickly.  I had one client who put a contract on a burned house for $100 earnest money in his daughter’s Coverdell Education Savings Account, then sold his contract to a third party who specialized in repairing burned houses for $8,500.  In under 1 month the account made a profit of 8,400%, and all parties were happy with the deal!  The account holder then immediately took a TAX FREE distribution to pay for his daughter’s private school tuition.

A fourth choice that sometimes is overlooked is the ability to release the option back to the property owner for a cancellation fee.  In other words, this is a way for your IRA to get paid not to buy! Let me give you an example of how this might work.  Suppose you want to offer the seller what he would consider to be a ridiculously low offer.  When the seller balks, you say “I’ll tell you what.  You sign this option agreement for my IRA to purchase this property at my price, and we’ll put in the option agreement that I cannot exercise my option for 30 days.  If you find a buyer willing to offer you more money within that 30 day period, just reimburse my IRA the option fee plus a cancellation fee of $2,500.”  Either way, your IRA wins!

The creative use of options can make your IRA grow astronomically if done correctly.  In future articles I will be discussing different types of option strategies.

The Truth About Self-Directed IRAs and Other Accounts

There is a lot of confusion over self-directed IRAs and what is and is not possible.  In this article we will disprove some of the more common self-directed IRA myths.

Myth #1. Purchasing anything other than CDs, stocks, mutual funds or annuities is illegal in an IRA.

Truth:

The only prohibitions contained in the Internal Revenue Code for IRAs are investments in life insurance contracts and in “collectibles”, which are defined to include any work of art, any rug or antique, any metal or gem (with certain exceptions for gold, silver, platinum or palladium bullion), any stamp or coin (with certain exceptions for gold, silver, or platinum coins issued by the United States or under the laws of any State), any alcoholic beverage, or any other tangible personal property specified by the Secretary of the Treasury (no other property has been specified as of this date).

Since there are so few restrictions contained in the law, almost anything else which can be documented can be purchased in your IRA.  A “self-directed” IRA allows any investment not expressly prohibited by law.  Common investment choices include real estate, both domestic and foreign, options, secured and unsecured notes, including first and second liens against real estate, C corporation stock, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, trusts and a whole lot more.

Myth #2. Only Roth IRAs can be self-directed.

Truth:

Because of the power of tax free wealth accumulation in a self-directed Roth IRA, many articles are written on how to use a Roth IRA to invest in non-traditional investments.  As a result, it is a surprisingly common misconception that a Roth IRA is the only account which can be self-directed.  In fact, there are seven different types of accounts which can be self-directed.  They are the 1) Roth IRA, 2) the Traditional IRA, 3) the SEP IRA, 4) the SIMPLE IRA, 5) the Individual 401(k), including the Roth 401(k), 6) the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA, formerly known as the Education IRA), and 7) the Health Savings Account (HSA).  Not only can all of these accounts invest in non-traditional investments as indicated in Myth #1, but they can be combined together to purchase a single investment.
Myth #3. I don’t qualify for a self-directed Roth or Traditional IRA because I am covered by a retirement plan at work or because I make too much money.

Truth:

Almost anyone can have a self-directed account of some type.  Although there are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA (in 2008 the income limits are $169,000 for a married couple filing jointly and $116,000 for a single person or head of household), having a plan at work does not affect your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA, and there is no age limit either.  With a Traditional IRA, you or your spouse having a retirement plan at work does affect the deductibility of your contribution, but anyone with earned income who is under age 70 1/2 can contribute to a Traditional IRA.  There are no upper income limits for contributing to a Traditional IRA.  Also, a Traditional IRA can receive funds from a prior employer’s 401(k) or other qualified plan.  Additionally, you may be able to contribute to a Coverdell ESA for your children or grandchildren, nieces, nephews or even my children, if you are so inclined.  If you have the right type of health insurance, called a High Deductible Health Plan, you can contribute to an HSA regardless of your income level.  With an HSA, you may deduct your contributions to the account and qualified distributions are tax free forever!  It’s the best of both worlds.  All of this is in addition to any retirement plan you have at your job or for your self-employed business.

Myth #4. I can’t have a self-directed 401(k) plan for my business because I am self-employed and file a Schedule C for my income.

Truth:

You can have a self-directed SEP IRA, a SIMPLE IRA or a 401(k) plan even if you are self-employed and file your income on Schedule C of your personal tax return.  With a SEP IRA, you can contribute up to 20% of your net earnings from self-employment (calculated by deducting one-half of your self-employment tax from your net profits as shown on Schedule C) or 25% of your wages from an employer, up to a maximum of $46,000 for 2008.  With the SIMPLE IRA, you can defer up to the first $10,500 of your net earnings from self-employment (calculated by multiplying your net Schedule C income by 0.9235% for SIMPLE IRA purposes), plus an additional $2,500 of your net earnings if you are age 50 by the end of the year, plus you can contribute an additional 3% of your net earnings as an employer contribution.  Beginning in 2002 even self-employed persons are entitled to have their own 401(k) plan.  Better yet, in 2006 the Roth 401(k) was added, allowing even high income earners to contribute after tax dollars into an account where qualified distributions are tax free forever!  With an Individual 401(k) you can defer up to $15,500 (for 2007 and 2008) of your net earnings from self-employment (calculated by deducting one-half of your self-employment tax from your net profits as shown on Schedule C), plus an additional $5,000 of your net earnings if you reach age 50 by the end of the year, plus you can contribute as much as an additional $30,500 based on up to 20% of your net earnings for 2008 (or 25% of your wages from an employer).  This means that a 50 plus year old self-employed person can contribute up to $51,000 for 2008!
Myth #5. Because I have a small IRA and can only contribute $5,000, it’s not worth having a self-directed IRA.

Truth:

Even small balance accounts can participate in non-traditional investing.  Small balance accounts can be co-invested with larger accounts owned by you or even other people.  For example, one recent hard money loan we funded had 10 different accounts participating.  The smallest account to participate was for only $1,827.00!  There are at least 4 ways you can participate in real estate investment even with a small IRA.  First, you can wholesale property.  You simply put the contract in the name of your IRA instead of your name.  The earnest money comes from the IRA.  When you assign the contract, the assignment fee goes back into your IRA.  If using a Roth IRA, this profit is tax-free forever! Second, you can purchase an option on real estate, which then can be either exercised, assigned to a third party, or canceled for a fee.  Third, you can purchase property in your IRA subject to existing financing or with a non-recourse loan from a bank, a hard money lender, a financial friend or a motivated seller.  Profits from debt-financed property in your IRA may incur unrelated business income tax (UBIT), however.  Finally, as mentioned above, your IRA can be a partner with other IRA or non-IRA investors.

Myth # 6. If I want to purchase non-traditional investments in an IRA, I must first establish an LLC which will be owned by my IRA.

Truth:

A very popular idea in the marketplace right now is that you can invest your IRA in an LLC where you (the IRA owner) are the manager of the LLC.  Effectively you have “checkbook control” of your IRA funds.  Providers generally charge thousands of dollars to set up these LLCs and sometimes mislead people into thinking that this is necessary to invest in real estate or other non-traditional investments.  This is simply not true.  Not only can an IRA hold title to real estate and other non-traditional investments directly with companies such as Quest IRA, Inc., but having “checkbook control” of your IRA funds through an LLC can lead to many traps for the unwary.  Far from protecting your IRA from the prohibited transaction rules, these setups may in fact lead to an inadvertent prohibited transaction, which may cause your IRA to be distributed to you, sometimes with substantial penalties.  This is not to say that there are not times when having your IRA make an investment through an LLC is a good idea, especially for asset protection purposes.  Nonetheless, you must educate yourself completely as to the rules before deciding on this route.  Having a “checkbook control” IRA owned LLC is kind of like skydiving without a parachute – it may be fun on the way down, but eventually you are likely to go SPLAT!
Myth #7. I can borrow money from my IRA to purchase a vacation home for myself.

Truth:

Although the Internal Revenue Code lists very few investment restrictions, certain transactions (as opposed to investments) are considered to be prohibited.  If your IRA enters into a prohibited transaction, there are severe consequences, so it is important to understand what constitutes a prohibited transaction.

Essentially, the prohibited transaction rules were made to discourage disqualified persons from dealing with the assets of the plan in a self-dealing manner, either directly or indirectly. The assets of a plan are to be invested in a manner which benefits the plan itself and not the IRA owner (other than as a beneficiary of the IRA) or any other disqualified person.  Investment transactions are supposed to be on an arms length basis.

As a result of these legal restrictions, a loan from your IRA or staying at a vacation home owned by your IRA, even if fair market rates are paid for interest or rent, would be prohibited.

Myth #8. With a self-directed IRA, I can borrow my IRA funds to purchase real estate and then put all the profits back into the IRA.

Truth:

When real estate or any other asset is purchased within a self-directed IRA, the money never leaves the IRA at all.  Instead, the IRA exchanges cash for the asset, in the same way that an IRA at a brokerage house exchanges cash for shares of stock or a mutual fund.  Therefore, the asset must be held in the name of the IRA.  For example, if Max N. Vestor were to purchase an investment house in his self-directed IRA, the title would be held as “Quest IRA, Inc. FBO Max N. Vestor IRA #12345-11.”  Since the IRA owns the asset, all expenses associated with the asset must be paid by the IRA and all profit resulting from that investment belongs to the IRA, including rents received and gains from the sale of the asset.

Myth #9. If my IRA buys real estate, it must pay all cash for the property.  An IRA cannot buy real estate with debt.

Truth:

An IRA can own debt-financed property, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as an LLC or partnership.  Any debt must be non-recourse to the IRA and to any disqualified person.  An IRA may have to pay Unrelated Debt Financed Income Tax (UDFIT) on its profits from debt-financed property.  In general, taxes must be paid on profits from an IRA-owned property that is debt-financed, including profits from the sale or disposition of the property, in the same proportion that it had debt.  For a simplified example, if the IRA puts 50% down, then 50% of its profits above $1,000 will be taxable.  Although at first this sounds terrible, in fact leverage can be an extremely powerful tool in building your retirement wealth.  The same leverage principle applies inside or outside of your IRA – you can do more with debt-financing than you can without it.  One client was able to build her Roth IRA from $3,000 to over $33,000 in less than 4 months even after paying the taxes due by taking over a property subject to a debt and selling the property to another investor!

Myth #10. An IRA cannot own a business.

Truth:

A self-directed IRA is an amazingly flexible wealth building tool and can own almost anything, including a business.  However, due to the conflict of interest rules you cannot work for a business owned by your IRA and get paid.  Some companies have a plan to start a C corporation, adopt a 401(k) plan, roll an IRA into the 401(k) plan and purchase employer securities to effectively start a new business, but this is not a direct investment by the IRA in the business and is fairly expensive to set up.  Also, if your IRA owns an interest in a business, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as an LLC or partnership, the IRA may owe Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) on its profits from the business.  A solution to this problem may be to have the business owned by a C corporation or another taxable entity.

How Do I Invest Thee? Let Me Count the Ways!

Many people find it very easy to see the benefits of self-directing their Roth and Traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, Individual 401(k)s, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) into something other than the same old boring stocks, bonds, annuities and mutual funds.  The central idea of a self-directed IRA is that it gives you total control of your retirement assets.  With a self-directed account you can invest your IRA funds in whatever you know best.

When I spoke recently at John Schaub’s Real Estate All Stars conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, I outlined some of the top strategies our clients have actually used to build their retirement wealth.  A brief description of these strategies is included in this article.  This shows the tremendous flexibility of investing through a self-directed account.

Strategy #1 – Purchasing Rental Real Estate for Cash.  Even the IRS acknowledges on its website that real estate is an acceptable investment for an IRA.  In answering the question “Are there any restrictions on the things I can invest my IRA in?” the IRS includes in its response that “IRA law does not prohibit investing in real estate but trustees are not required to offer real estate as an option.”  One of our clients purchased a 10 unit apartment complex for $330,000 cash.  In April, 2008 his total rent collection was $5,235.  Even after payment of taxes and insurance, his cash on cash return is excellent, and the client believes that the value of the property will increase significantly over time.  A discussion of the relative benefits and disadvantages of owning real estate directly in an IRA is beyond the scope of this article, but for those who know how to successfully invest in real estate it is great to know that real estate is an option for your self-directed account.

Strategy #2 – Purchase, Rehab and Resale of Real Estate.  In this case study, our client decided not to hold onto the real estate purchased with his IRA.  The client received a phone call one evening from an elderly gentleman who said he needed to sell his home quickly because he wanted to move to Dallas with his son.  After a quick phone conversation, it was clear that the price the seller wanted was a bargain even considering the needed repairs.  Our client dropped what he was doing and immediately headed over to the seller’s house with a contract.  The buyer on the contract was our client’s IRA, and of course the earnest money came from the IRA after the client read and approved the contract and submitted it with a buy direction letter to Quest IRA, Inc.  They agreed on a sales price of $101,000.  Approximately $30,000 was spent rehabbing the property with all funds coming from the IRA.  The property was sold 6 months later for $239,000, with a net profit after sales and holding expenses of $94,000!

Strategy #3 – Purchase and Immediate Resale of Real Estate (Flipping).  The previous two examples show the tremendous power of buying real estate for cash with a self-directed IRA.  However, both of these strategies require a significant amount of cash in your account.  How else can you invest in real estate if you have little cash?  One of our clients was able to put a commercial piece of vacant land under contract in his Roth IRA.  The sales price was $503,553.60 after acreage adjustments.  Using his knowledge of what was attractive for a building site, our client was able to negotiate a sales price to a major home improvement store chain for $650,000.  On the day of closing Quest, IRA Inc. received two sets of documents, one for the purchase of the property for $503,553.60 and the other for the sale of the same property for $650,000.  After sales expenses, the IRA netted $146,281.40 from the sale with only the earnest money coming from the account!  A word of caution in this case is that if property is flipped inside of an IRA the IRS may consider this to be Unrelated Business Taxable Income (UBTI), causing the IRA (not the IRA owner) to owe some taxes on the gain.  Even if taxes had to be paid, it is hard to argue that this transaction was not beneficial to the IRA and ultimately the client!  It should also be noted that in this situation everyone involved in the transaction was aware of what everyone else was doing, so there was no “under the table” dealings.

Strategy #4 – Assignments and Options – Getting Paid NOT to Buy!  Another favorite strategy for building tremendous wealth without a significant amount of cash is the use of options and assignments.  One of our clients put a property under contract in his daughter’s Coverdell Education Savings Account for $100.  The sales price was a total of $5,500 because the house had burned down.  The seller was just getting rid of the property for its lot value since he had already received a settlement from the insurance company and had purchased another house.  Our client then used his contacts to find a person who specialized in rehabbing burned out houses.  The new buyer was willing to purchase the property for $14,000 cash.  At closing one month after the contract was signed, the seller received his $5,500 and the Coverdell ESA received an assignment fee of $8,500 right on the settlement statement.  That is an astounding 8,400% return on the $100 investment in only 30 days!  Even better, our client was then able to take a TAX FREE distribution from the account of $3,300 to pay for his 10 year old daughter’s private school tuition.  In a similar transaction, another client’s Roth IRA recently received an assignment fee of $21,000 plus reimbursement of earnest money for a contract.

Strategy #5 – Using the Power of Debt Leveraging.  One of my favorite true stories of building wealth in a Roth IRA involves purchasing property subject to a debt.  If an IRA owns debt-financed property either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as a partnership or LLC taxed as a partnership, profits from that investment are taxable to the same extent there is debt on the property.  One of our clients used her knowledge of real estate investing and what she learned from a free Quest IRA, Inc. educational seminar to tremendously boost her retirement savings.  After noticing a large house in downtown Houston which was in bad shape but in a great location, our client tracked down the owner in California who was being sued for approximately $97,000 in delinquent taxes on the property.  She negotiated a deal with the seller for her Roth IRA to purchase the property for $75 cash subject to the delinquent taxes.  With closing costs her Roth IRA’s total cash in the transaction was only around $3,000.  Within 4 months she was able to sell the property for a profit to her Roth IRA of $43,500!  Because the property had debt on it and because her Roth IRA sold the property for a short term capital gain, the taxes on the profit were approximately $13,500.  Still, using the power of debt leveraging her Roth IRA was able to achieve a 1,000% return in less than 4 months even after paying Uncle Sam his share of the profits!

Strategy #6 – Hard Money Lending.  Another excellent strategy for building your retirement wealth is through lending.  Loans from IRAs can be made secured by real estate, mobile homes or anything else.  Some people even choose to loan money from their IRAs on an unsecured basis.  As long as the borrower is not a disqualified person to the lending IRA, almost any terms agreed to by the parties are acceptable.  In many states there are limits to the amount of interest that can be charged, and loans must be properly documented, but IRA law does not impose any limits other than the prohibited transaction rules.  For those wanting to avoid the direct ownership of real estate within their IRA, a loan with an equity participation agreement is often used.  Several of my own self-directed accounts combined together recently to make a $25,000, 7 1/2 year, 12% first lien loan against real estate with 6% in points up front.  True, this is not exactly setting the world on fire as far as return on investment goes, but I was very pleased with a safe return on a relatively small amount of cash.  If I get to foreclose on the collateral my accounts should be able to make a substantial profit, since the land securing the loan was appraised at $45,000.  At my office we routinely see hard money loans secured by first liens against real estate with interest at 12%-18% for terms ranging from 3 months to 3 years.

Strategy #7 – Private Placements.  Many of the best opportunities for passive growth of IRAs include the purchase of private limited partnership shares, LLC membership units and private stock which does not trade on the stock market.  Let me give you two examples from my own retirement account investments.  In one case my 401(k) plan invested in a limited partnership which purchased a shopping center in northern Louisiana.  The initial investment was $50,000, and in a little over 2 years the partnership has returned $59,321.  The plan’s remaining equity is estimated as of 12/31/2007 at $31,598 and the return on investment will be around 82%.  Even though the property is debt-financed the taxes on the profit have been almost nothing since the plan has taken advantage of depreciation and all of the normal deductions.  Once your IRA or other plan owes taxes due to debt financing, it gets to deduct a pro rata share of all normal expenses.  Another of my 401(k) plan investments is bank stock of a community bank in Houston, Texas.  The initial shares were sold at $10 per share in February, 2007.  The book value after less than 1 year of operations was $11 per share, and shares have recently been selling to other private investors for as much as $14.25 per share!  That is a great return for a completely passive investment, and when the bank finally sells the shares are expected to sell for well above these amounts.

Strategy #8 – Owning a Business in Your IRA.  One of the most innovative strategies we have seen is the ownership of a business by an IRA.  Although neither you nor any other disqualified person may provide services to or get paid for working at a business owned by your IRA or other self-directed account, this does not mean that your IRA cannot own a business.  Some companies do market the ability for you to start a C corporation, adopt a 401(k) plan, roll your IRA into the plan, and purchase “qualifying employer securities,” but this is different than an IRA owning a business directly.  For example, my Health Savings Account invested $500 for 100% of the shares of a corporation which arranges for hard money loans to investors.  The company is fully licensed as a Texas mortgage broker.  The structure of the company is a C corporation.  Since being a mortgage broker is a business operation, profits from the venture would have been taxable to my HSA if the entity formed to own the business was not taxable itself, and the tax rates for trusts such as IRAs and HSAs are much higher than for corporations.  While normally dividends from C corporations are taxable a second time to the shareholder, dividends paid to an IRA or HSA are tax free as investment income.  The corporation is run by non-disqualified persons who handle the due diligence on the loans and the legal work, as well as by a licensed Texas mortgage broker who sponsors the corporation’s mortgage broker license.

Strategy #9 – Using OPI (Other People’s IRAs) to Make Money Now.  Even if you have not found the investment strategy of your dreams among the strategies discussed in this article, or if you have no IRA or if you are more focused on making money now to live on, your time spent reading this article can still be of great use to you.  For each of the above strategies I have focused on the possibility that your IRA could be the investor.  But what if you are the recipient of the IRA’s investment money?  Are you a real estate investor having a hard time finding funding for your transactions?  If you know people with self-directed IRAs or people who would move their money to a self-directed account, you can borrow their IRA money and virtually create your own private bank!  You can also partner with OPI where the IRA puts up the money and you share in the equity for finding the deal and managing the project.  Simply by explaining to people that they can own real estate in their IRAs you may be able to sell more property, either as a real estate broker or as the seller.  You can even provide financing for your sales by having OPI make loans to your buyers.  Finally, OPI can be a great way to raise capital for your business venture, although you must be aware of and comply with all securities laws.  One bank I know of told me that 42% of their initial capital came from retirement accounts!  Although you cannot use your own retirement account to benefit yourself at present unless you are over age 59 1/2, these are just some of the ways you can use OPI to make money for yourself right now.  A good network is the key to your success.

What I have discussed in this article have been some of the more common investment strategies actually used by our clients.  The only restrictions contained in the Internal Revenue Code are that IRAs cannot invest in life insurance contracts or collectibles.  Almost any other investment that can be documented can be held in a self-directed IRA.  As long as you follow the rules and do not invest in prohibited investments, your only real limitation is your imagination!