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A Chance to Direct

Self-directed IRAs offer a wide range of investments — and an even wider list of rules.

When Patriot Federal Bank, a community bank based in Canajoharie, New York, went looking for start-up capital last year, CFO Vince Fazio tapped into an unlikely source: individual retirement accounts. While the humble IRA will never be confused with a hedge fund, it turns out that in the right hands this most prosaic of long-term investment vehicles is actually far more flexible than most people realize. In its “self-directed” form, an IRA can embrace a range of investments far beyond the typical mix of mutual funds and money-market accounts; it can, in fact, be used to invest in real estate, tax liens, small business, and a host of other “nontraditional” investments (see “Investing, with Limits” at the end of this article).

None of that was lost on Fazio, and ultimately 10 percent of the $8.6 million his bank raised came from self-directed IRAs, including his own. Fazio diverted about $11,000 of his retirement assets into an account that invested in the bank. Part of the appeal was the ability to secure “a buy-and-hold investment for long-term gain” and to keep his money “local.”

Self-directed IRAs aren’t new, points out Paul Maxwell, chief operating officer of Carlesbad, California-based Trust Administrative Services. “Alternative investments have always been permitted [in IRAs] under the IRS code,” he says. What’s helping them grow at three times the rate of traditional IRAs, in terms of number of new accounts, is the greater control they offer — and at least the aura of more upside. And given that many investors are hungry for more upside, and sometimes have hundreds of thousands of dollars accumulated in their IRAs, they can afford to get creative in pursuit of better growth, despite the added risk.

In fact, there may be a temptation to get too clever. “When you have accumulated significant money in one or more IRAs, that presents all kinds of possibilities,” says Robert Holdway, vice president of Boston-based Fiduciary Trust Co. But Holly Isdale, managing director and head of Lehman Brothers Wealth Advisory Group, cautions that a self-directed IRA should be regarded as “play money,” and that investors should understand their individual risk profile, allocate accordingly. They should beware of “betting the ranch” with a self-directed IRA.

Whether those words of caution are necessary is debatable: there are no solid statistics regarding the performance of self-directed accounts compared with more-traditional IRAs, and they have tended to be embraced by more-sophisticated investors, who presumably understand that the potential for higher returns invariably entails higher risks.

Getting Started

Setting up a self-directed IRA is relatively simple. It must be administered through third-party custodial firms, and a cottage industry has emerged to oblige. Firms such as Trust Administrative Services; Entrust Administration Inc., based in Oakland, California; and Sterling Trust Co., in Waco, Texas, all specialize in self-directed IRAs.

In addition, some bank trust departments can set up these accounts, as long as they limit themselves to administrative functions and do not offer investment advice. There are fees involved, of course. Trust Administrative Services, for example, charges a base annual administration fee of $150 as well as transaction and asset-holding fees. Entrust charges $50 to open an account, plus annual record-keeping fees that can go as high as $1,850. (Fees to administer regular IRAs typically average less than $100 annually.)

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