Using a Checkbook LLC to Invest Your IRA Funds

Six months ago, I wrote: “Real estate prices are at bargain levels.  Many individuals seeking to recoup their stock market losses, or who are considering a career change, are seriously considering real estate as an investment opportunity.  However, despite the fact that rates are at historically low levels, lenders are still reluctant to loan money, and with the overall drop in appraised values, it is harder than ever to get an equity line of credit.  Even those with great credit scores find that lenders are reluctant to loan money for some of the more challenging types of investment opportunities, such as bulk REO sales, foreclosures, rehabs, and flips. This is where you might consider using your retirement plan — your 401(k) or IRA – as an alternate source of funds.”  For whatever reason, the situation has not changed: real estate is still a bargain and lenders are still not lending.

If you haven’t already done so, you might consider using your Self-Directed IRA to fund a real estate investment.  For some people, it might even make sense to set up a “Checkbook LLC” so you can control the speed of the transaction process.

Based on some examples I’ve encountered over the past year, I want to emphasize that the use of your SDIRA must be compatible with your investment objectives. Restrictions on the use of your IRA — sometimes referred to as “Prohibited Transactions” under IRC Section 4975 — may be incompatible with your objectives.¬† For example, if you plan to purchase an investment rental for your son or daughter to live in while they attend college, you cannot use your IRA funds.¬† Another example is where you plan to use your IRA to fund a business where you are the key decision-maker (CEO, COO, etc.).¬† IRS and DOL restrictions will often make these types of investments impossible or extremely complicated.¬† But if you are simply looking for a bona-fide, arms-length investment that will provide a decent ROI, consider using your IRA.

First, you need to find a qualified IRA custodian who will allow you to invest in real estate, and not just “traditional” investments such as stocks, bonds or mutual funds. A truly “self-directed” individual retirement account  (“SDIRA”) custodian will allow you to “self-direct” your retirement funds into “alternative” assets, such as real estate, notes and deeds of trust, and business opportunities.  This isn’t new – it has been available to investors since 1974 when Congress enacted ERISA.  What is new is the nature of investment opportunities that are available.

Several custodians offer the opportunity to use your SDIRA to invest in real estate, but there are restrictions and regulations. The transaction must be arms length: the account holder may not receive any direct or indirect benefit (i.e., commission); and they may not sell or buy property that is owned by a direct relative or themselves (i.e., you cannot purchase your mother’s house or buy a condo for your daughter while she’s attending college).  In addition, you may not make personal use of the property purchased with retirement funds. Real estate investment property is generally ideal for using SDIRA funds.

With a SDIRA, your Custodian must control the disbursement of funds, and all proceeds (i.e., rental income or sale) must be returned to your IRA in order to maintain the special tax treatment provided for retirement plan accounts.  This means that all transactions must be processed through your SDIRA Custodian, which can result in fees and, in some cases, delays.  In some types of transactions, such as bulk REO sales, foreclosure sales, rehabs and flips, not only are there multiple transactions, but time is of the essence!

This is where a “Checkbook LLC” can help.¬† The process involves setting up a separate LLC funded and owned entirely by your SDIRA, and deposited directly to a checking account held in the name of the LLC.¬† As Manager, you would have the authority to issue checks to disburse funds for both minor and major expenses, pay fees, and generally manage the funds according to the time requirements imposed by the type of investments you are working with.¬† A classic example is the need for prompt disbursement when purchasing foreclosure property at the courthouse steps.

The “Checkbook LLC” is not for everyone, and there are some disadvantages when using SDIRA funds to invest in real estate.¬† The investor must be fully aware of and take special measures to ensure that the investments comply with the special restrictions, or risk losing the special tax benefits provided for retirement plan funds.¬† “Boilerplate” or “Internet” format LLC documents will often not be acceptable to SDIRA Custodians.¬† At the same time, don’t be fooled into paying thousands of dollars for unnecessary services, books and tapes.¬† Remember, your primary goal should be to invest your retirement funds in real estate, not gimmicks!¬† Always consult with a qualified professional, and take the time to learn more.