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Fertile ground for retirement funds?

Interest in real estate IRAs is increasing as investors have watched savings evaporate in the stock market.

April 20, 2003|Corrie M. Anders | Special to The Times

After two years of watching her retirement nest egg shrink as the stock market dropped, Karen Johnson decided it was time for an alternative investment strategy.

So she pulled $8,000 from her individual retirement account and reinvested it in a parcel of raw land on the outskirts of Lancaster that she believes is in the path of Los Angeles' residential growth.

Surprised that Johnson could use her retirement money? Few consumers are aware that they can invest their IRA funds in real estate and that it has been allowed for more than 25 years. But public awareness of this option is increasing as huge chunks of wealth have evaporated in an anemic stock market.

While these "real estate IRAs" have some complicated rules, there's virtually no limit to the type of residential or commercial transactions allowed. Single-family houses, apartment buildings, farms, shopping centers, office buildings, hotels and undeveloped land all qualify.

To increase their buying power, investors can pool separate IRA accounts to form limited partnerships or limited liability corporations. These partnerships range from spouses who merge their IRAs to people with fairly new IRAs that haven't yet accumulated substantial savings.

"You name it and you can invest in it," said Patrick Rice, president of IRA Resource Associates, a Camas, Wash., firm that facilitates such deals.

Johnson, 48, a Northern California event marketing specialist, opted for land. She joined a group of investors who pooled funds to buy a 17-acre parcel in Lancaster, banking on the land's potential for appreciation down the road.

Many IRA savers who hold real estate in their accounts prefer undeveloped property, according to Jeff Cohen, vice president of the IRA department for Arrowhead Trust Inc. in Irvine. Raw land is easier to deal with, Cohen said, and has fewer expenses.

About 35 million households nationally own about $3 trillion worth of IRAs, mostly invested in stocks and bonds sold by brokerage houses, banks, mutual funds and insurance companies. Less than 1% of the retirement money involves real estate or other nontraditional investments, according to Rice. But that's changing, as more people become aware of the real estate option.

"People are just looking for new options for their IRAs," said Bonnie MacKinnon, a real estate agent with Ace Capital Group, Redwood City, Calif., which put together the Lancaster land deal. "People are really hurting from the stock market, and a lot of people got caught up in the tech wave."

Traditional IRAs, to which individuals this year can contribute a maximum $3,000 annually, or $3,500 if age 50 or older, have been allowed to hold real estate since the program's inception in 1974. Still, that option comes as a surprise to most IRA savers and to many professionals as well.

One reason consumers haven't heard about real estate IRAs is that there is little profit incentive for financial institutions, which primarily sell stocks and bonds to IRA accounts.

"Why would they tell you about real estate?" Rice asked. "That would mean the money would go out of their pots, and they couldn't make money on it anymore."

Savers with Keoghs, simplified employee pensions or Roth IRAs or those who have rolled their 401(k)s into an IRA after retiring or changing employers are eligible.

In addition to the benefits of potential appreciation, the capital gains tax on an IRA-sold property can be deferred or eliminated in some cases. Another bonus is that any rental income goes directly into the IRA account. Keep in mind, however, that real estate goes through boom-bust cycles. Values could be stagnant or in decline when it's time to sell. And real estate IRAs have potential pitfalls with harsh financial penalties for transgressions.

Most savers will want to work with an expert to convert a traditional IRA into a self-directed IRA and to stay within the rules. These professionals include IRA custodians, who act as trustees for the account; IRA advisors, who locate real estate investments; and IRA administrators, who handle record-keeping chores, including collecting rents and paying bills.

Tom Anderson, chief executive of San Francisco-based PENSCO, which specializes in the administration of IRAs that invest in real estate, cautions that real estate IRAs are not a do-it-yourself proposition. "We don't recommend this for people who are not sophisticated investors or not working with advisors," he said.

One sticky area for IRAs holding real estate is that the property cannot be for your own use. A beautiful house at the beach and a gorgeous weekend may seem awfully alluring. But neither you, your spouse, your parents nor your children can own or use the property as a personal residence. (Strangely, your sister or brother can.) Likewise, you cannot use your IRA's commercial space for your own business.

Break the rules and you could lose anywhere from 15% to 110% of your IRA's value, including penalties.

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