Using IRA Money to Buy Real Estate

Weighing the Pros and Cons

a woman looking at a display of available real estate
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You can buy real estate in your IRA, but should you? In some select cases, this might be a smart move, but for the average person, it is probably not a great idea. Let's take a look at the rules that have to be followed in order to legally purchase real estate with funds in an IRA account.

The Basic Rules

IRA funds are tax-deferred. If you purchase real estate with an IRA improperly, you can disqualify the IRA, making all the funds taxable. This would be an expensive mistake. Here are the basic rules that must be followed to have a qualified purchase:

  • You can’t mortgage the property.
  • You can’t work on the property yourself so you must pay for an independent person to do any repairs.
  • You don’t get the tax breaks if the property operates at a loss, nor can you .
  • You must pay all costs associated with the property out of the IRA and deposit all income into the IRA – if you don’t have enough cash in your IRA and a major property expense comes up, this can put you in a bad situation.
  • You cannot receive any personal benefit from the property – you can’t live in it or use it in any way. The real estate owned by your IRA must be strictly for investment purposes.

    No Personal Use

    When people first hear they can legally buy real estate with IRA money, they get excited thinking they can use their IRA funds to buy a vacation property or a house they might rent to their children. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

    Any investment made by your IRA must be considered an arm's length transaction. That means you can’t use money in your IRA to buy or sell real estate to or from yourself or family members, and you can’t receive any personal benefit from the property. Get it? It can’t be a piece of property that you use for yourself in any way, shape, or form.

    You can't receive any indirect benefit either. For example, you can’t pay yourself or a family member to be the property manager. To keep things by the books you’ll want to hire an independent person to do any maintenance or repair work needed.

    The Tax Benefits

    Like any investment in your IRA, taxable income is deferred until the day you take withdrawals, or if it is a Roth IRA, any investment gain accumulates tax-free and you are able to withdraw it tax-free. These rules apply no matter what type of investment is owned in the IRA. 

    One of the main benefits of investing in real estate is depreciation - a current tax deduction you get to take. However, inside your IRA you cannot claim deductions, depreciation, or a loss. You don’t get these big tax write-offs with real estate inside the IRA. 

    In addition to a traditional IRA once you reach 70 1/2, you must take required minimum distributions. If you own real estate you can't usually sell it off in portions, so if there is not enough cash in your IRA account to cover your required distributions this can cause problems.

    For all of these reasons, most people are better off using non-IRA money for their real estate investments. The exception is the Roth. If you are a savvy real estate investor and can use Roth IRA funds for your purchases, you can accumulate substantial gains and they will all be tax-free. That's a smart move.

    Who Should Buy Real Estate In Their IRA

    If you are an experienced real estate investor, and you know you can earn attractive returns by buying raw land, flipping properties, or accumulating rental real estate, then using IRA funds may make sense for you. You must defer withdrawing income or gains until age 59 1/2, but inside the IRA you can roll funds from one project to the next with no tax consequences.

    Finding a Custodian for Real Estate IRAs

    As IRAs have special tax benefits, an IRA must have a custodian that keeps track of and reports to the IRS on deposits, withdrawals, and year-end balances. 

    Many custodians will allow you to open what is called a self-directed IRA. They charge an annual or quarterly fee to provide the necessary reporting. Many of these custodians provide literature and links to the IRS rules that apply, but most of them will not give you legal or tax advice, so it will be up to you to make sure you are following the rules. If you don’t follow the rules, you take the risk that your entire IRA account will be considered taxable income.