Self-Directed IRA Basics: What is a Self-Directed IRA, What Can a Self-Directed IRA Invest Into, and What is an IRA/LLC?
Mat Sorensen


June 10, 2014

What is a Self-Directed IRA?

A Self-Directed IRA is an IRA (Roth, Traditional, SEP, Inherited IRA, SIMPLE) where the custodian of the account allows the IRA to invest into any investment allowed by law. These investments typically include; real estate, promissory notes, precious metals, and private company stock. The typical reaction I hear from investors is: “Why haven’t I ever heard of self-directed IRAs before, and why can I only invest my current retirement plan into mutual funds or stocks?” The reason is that the large financial institutions that administer most U.S. retirement accounts don’t find it administratively feasible to hold real estate or non-publicly traded assets in retirement plans.

What Can a Self-Directed IRA Invest Into?

Under current law, a retirement account is only restricted from investing in the following:

The most popular self-directed retirement account investments include; rental real estate, secured loans to others for real estate, small business stock or LLC interest, and precious metals such as gold or silver. These investments are all allowed by law and can be great assets for investors with experience in these areas.

When self-directing your retirement account you must be aware of the prohibited transaction rules found in IRC 4975. These rules don’t restrict what your account can invest in, but rather, whom your IRA may transact with. In short, the prohibited transaction rules restrict your retirement account from engaging in a transaction with someone who is a disqualified person to your account. A disqualified person to a retirement account includes the account owner, their spouse, children, parents, and certain business partners. So, for example, your retirement account could not buy a rental property that is owned by your father since a purchase of the property would be a transaction with someone who is disqualified to the retirement account (e.g. father). On the other hand, your retirement account could buy a rental property from your cousin, friend, sister, or a random third-party, as these parties are not disqualified persons under the rules.

The rationale behind the prohibited transaction rules is that the federal government doesn’t want tax advantaged accounts conducting transactions between parties who are close enough to the account owner that there could be a transaction designed to avoid or un-fairly minimize tax by altering the true fair market value/price of the investment. The consequence of a prohibited transaction is disqualification of the retirement account as of January 1 of the year the prohibited transaction occurred. In a typical self-directed IRA investment, your IRA custodian holds your investment in their company name for your IRAs benefit (e.g. property is owned as ABC Trust Company FBO John Smith IRA) and receives the income and pays the expenses for the investment at the account owner’s direction and instruction.

What is an IRA/LLC?

Many self-directed retirement account owners, particularly those buying real estate, use an IRA/LLC as the vehicle to hold their retirement account assets. An IRA/LLC is a special type of LLC, which consists of an IRA (or other retirement account) investing its cash into a newly created LLC. The IRA/LLC is managed by the IRA owner and the IRA owner then directs the LLC investments and the LLC takes title to the assets, pays the expenses to the investment, and receives the income from the investment. There are many restrictions to the IRA owner being a manager (such as not receiving compensation or personal benefit) and many laws to consider so please ensure you consult an attorney before establishing an IRA/LLC. For more details on the IRA/LLC structure, the cases, and the structuring options, please refer to my prior blog post here.

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