Self Directed Retirement

I’ve read more than a few passing mentions of so-called self directed retirement accounts.  I never really understood what that meant.  But the message was usually delivered with lots of exclamation points:

  • As a self employed business owner, you can reduce your taxable income, save for retirement, and increase your capital for investment!
  • As a full time employee with a side hustle, you can direct your retirement savings into your side business!

See!?  Why are you still reading these words?  Who wouldn’t want to have a self directed retirement account?  Why haven’t you called a broker yet?


Not so fast. Let’s dig into this a bit further.

Disclaimer.  Keep in mind: I’ve never formally studied retirement planning or financial advising.  Any decisions you make are your own. 

Let’s start with my motivation: with a potential opportunity to acquire our second (and maybe third!) on the horizon and a need for more cash, I figured it was time to figure out how we could afford our next opportunity.  And, a self-directed IRA represents a way to get cash without selling a kidney.  Here’s what I found:



What is a self directed IRA? 

It is a tax-advantaged (tax deferred) account offered by the US Government (IRS).  The account requires a custodian and allows for investment into alternatives (e.g., real estate, notes, or private companies). The account is funded with pre (traditional-IRA) or post (Roth-IRA) tax dollars.  The account then grows or shrinks as your investment choices grow or shrink and is subject to similar tax rules with a few extras.  For example, a self-directed IRA is prohibited from a bunch of transactions with “disqualified persons,” namely anyone closely related to you or businesses where “disqualified persons” have more than a 50% stake.

Honestly, It’s a bit tough to find details on the IRS’s website in one place (odd, right?).  I found that the fine folks at Cornell Law publish the internal revenue code  from which all the retirement accounts are authorized.  And, there’s an innumerable set of documents that the IRS publishes on all manner of arcane tax rules.  I also found IRC 4975(c)(1) and IRS Publication 590 to be the most referenced ones.

I did find a bunch of company websites that are selling their services as custodians.  Note: I’m not affiliated with any of these companies, nor am I receiving any compensation for mentioning them.  Some of these have pretty thorough documentation of the ins/outs of a self-directed account.

OK.  Enough overview.  I want to buy real-estate with my retirement dollars already.



Why is a self-directed IRA useful?

You can invest your retirement dollars into a wider variety of investment types.

Typical retirement accounts (401(k), 403(b), IRA, Roth IRA) are set up through an investment company like Vanguard, Fidelity, etc.  In a typical account, you can choose to put your money into stocks, bonds, mutual funds or other publicly trade-able assets.

I don’t want to do that. I want to buy a building or a note or shares of Tesla before they went public, and I want to do it with my retirement dollars.  This site lists a bunch of different types of assets (some of which you can invest in through traditional IRAs):

    • Real Estate
    • Private Company Stock
    • Tax Liens & Deeds
    • Oil, Gas & Mineral Rights
    • Crowdfunded Ventures
    • Trust Deeds & Mortgages
    • Private Loans to Businesses or Individuals
    • Venture Capital
    • Precious Metals
    • Traditional Stocks, Bonds & Funds
    • Anything the IRS rules allow for

Here’s one of the exciting benefits of using retirement dollars this way: your self directed IRA can get a non-recourse loan to finance the purchase of a property.  What!?  Well, yes.  You have to find a lender comfortable with this, and at typical loan to value ratio is closer to 50% but, it sure looks like you can leverage your retirement dollars.

One of the biggest reasons to look into a self directed IRA is if you are self-employed.  Lets say I decide to “retire” early from my day job to manage my real estate portfolio.  The self-directed approach allows me to continue putting aside retirement dollars, and I could elect to simultaneously supercharge my real-estate holdings.

There’s a few different flavors of self directed accounts: a solo 401(k), a self directed LLC (typically with “checkbook control”), or a business funding IRA.  I’ll leave the detailed overview to you to click through the links.  Suffice to say that each has minor differences in rules and benefits.

How to get started?

Think of setting up a self-directed IRA as starting a business.  That looks closer to the level of complexity to expect.
First, you need a custodian company that does this sort of thing.  Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab aren’t the go-to places for this kind of investment.  Some of the linked companies in this post are a good place to start your research.  Here they are:

How to fund a self-directed account?

Once you have your account set up, there are two basic ways to add funds into the account

  1. You can convert an existing retirement account into a self directed one.  This will of course require the support of your custodian company. And, all the IRS rules about taking possession of the funds apply.
  2.  Once the account is set up, you can start contributing much as you would a regular IRA.  The specifics will vary depending on which account custodian you’ve chosen.

How do you get your money out?

The short answer is just like any other retirement account: you cannot.   The longer answer is that you cannot until you reach the minimum age to begin distributions without paying a penalty (all the usual IRS rules apply regarding early withdrawals).

So you’ve invested in a nice little rental property.  You’re earning a great return on your investment.  What do you do with the proceeds?  You can either re-invest in the existing property (e.g., pay down any non-recourse loan balance) or save the cash to buy your next property!  Either way, don’t just take a distribution without ensuring you understand the rules or you may end up paying a penalty and income taxes.

Some other pitfalls of a self-directed account:

  • Cannot use money to interact with “disqualified parties.”  For reference, here’s the list of folks who cannot interact with the funds in the plan:
    • The IRA owner (don’t think you’ll buy a beach rental for your family this way!)
    • The IRA owner’s spouse
    • Ancestors (Mom, Dad, Grandparents)
    • Lineal Descendents (daughters, sons, grandchildren)
    • Spouses of Lineal Descendents (son or daughter-in-law)
    • Investment advisors
    • Fiduciaries – those providing services to the plan
    • Any business entity i.e., LLC, Corp, Trust or Partnership in which any of the disqualified persons mentioned above has a 50% or greater interest.
  • You likely won’t get any advice from the custodian on the tax implications, investment soundness, or legality of any moves you make.  Make sure you know what you’re doing or that you’ve hired a team who can give you good advice!
  • Variable costs.  I’ve not seen many published values, but Clint Coons suggests setup fees run $1500-$2000 and $300-$700 annually.  Depending on your asset base, a self-direct IRA will likely cost more than typical IRAs that limit your investment options to stocks and bonds.


What am I planning to do?

For now I’m focusing on more traditional approaches:

  1. I don’t have enough cash in my non-401(k) retirement accounts to justify the transaction costs of a self-directed IRA…and I’m not quite ready to quit my day job!
  2. I still believe in diversification, and real estate makes up a slightly out sized portion of our total net worth.

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