The Household Initiative Plan to Rescue Real Estate

Here’s a new plan for America’s housing problem called the Household Initiative Plan. It’s called that because of all the plans out there it is the only one that asks little of the Treasury, Federal Reserve, or other government agencies besides non-interference in what millions of responsible householders could do for themselves on their own initiative.

My Household Initiative Plan will act to revive the real estate market by attacking three parts of the problem together. It reduces the unsold housing inventory and arrests the decline in home prices by helping liquidity re-form in the real estate market. It does this by making available an untapped source of capital that has previously been hard to access: the IRAs, SEPs, SIMPLE and Keogh plans of American retirement savers. According to the Investment Company Institute, there were over 46 million of these retirement accounts at the most recent survey in 2007, holding an incredible $4.5 trillion. No doubt some has gone in the financial market collapse, but it is still a great deal of money even by current jaded standards.

While it has been possible to buy real estate with IRA funds all along, the heavy restrictions and complicated regulations have kept people from doing so. This plan calls for suspending the restrictions and regulations on the use of IRAs for real estate purchase.

At present, if you buy property through your IRA, you do not own the property, the IRA does. You cannot pay the taxes and maintenance expenses of the property, the IRA has to have enough funds to cover them. You cannot make personal use of the property while the IRA owns it, it must be held only for investment until distribution upon your retirement. You cannot manage the property, the IRA trustee has to designate a manager. You cannot collect rents, they have to be paid to the IRA. You can apply monies from more than one IRA account to the purchase and expenses, but in effect you cannot buy the property with a mortgage simply because no lender is going to have IRA accounts as mortgagors.

At least for the duration of the economic crisis, why not liberalize and simplify the system, so that more people might take advantage of low real estate prices using IRA money that they have but would not think to use for this purpose? Let’s allow people to take as much of their money as they want out of IRAs, SEPs, SIMPLE and Keogh plans, without taxes or penalties, for any real estate purchase – investment property or principal residence, first, second, or seventh home. They can then write contracts and take title as real persons in the regular way, without the complication of having a trustee execute these instruments on behalf of the IRA. Subject to market conditions and substantial down-payments, buyers should be able to get mortgages for regular-way purchases.

Let’s permit buyers using IRA funds to pay property taxes and maintenance expenses and collect any rents of the property either personally if they prefer, or through the IRA if they can. On an investment property, if they receive net investment income personally, it can be taxable, if through the IRA, then not. That will provide an incentive for directing investment income back to the retirement accounts. If the property is used as the principal personal residence of the owners, the normal mortgage interest deduction can apply. If it is a vacation home, then perhaps disallow that, because there has already been a tax advantage conferred by the liberalized use of the IRA monies.

If a property paid for with IRA funds is sold before the owners’ retirement, there are at least two sensible ways of handling the net proceeds. They can either go into another property without any capital gains tax but also without the further complication of a Section 1031 Exchange. Or the proceeds can return to the IRA, without fees, taxes, or penalties. Also – and this is important – if the account holders suspended IRA contributions after their property purchase, they should be permitted to catch up on their contributions and top up their accounts to the full extent that they could have funded their accounts under IRA rules.

The idea of my Household Initiative Plan is to make things easy for people to choose to use their IRA assets to buy real estate now. It removes the preference for financial assets over real assets and places both on a level playing field. Financial experts will object that retirement-minded investors should prefer stocks at today’s low prices. However, real estate is also very cheap now, particularly in popular retirement regions of the southwest and southeast, and there is no way of knowing whether houses or stocks will treat people’s money better in the coming years. As they always say, past performance is not an indicator of future results, but it is noteworthy that even after its sharp decline, the broad real estate asset class has performed better than the S&P 500 over the last ten years.

The key point at this time of financial uncertainty is this: The people’s money in IRA accounts belongs to them, and it should be their free choice to do with as they think best. If their choice can help the national prosperity as they prosper themselves, and at no additional public expense, what could be better for the general welfare?

1 comment to The Household Initiative Plan to Rescue Real Estate

  • David

    While I agree that lessening restrictions would make it easier, it really isn’t that hard to buy real estate with the current regulations. I’ve been doing it for years. You just have to know what you are doing. I use a company called Equity Trust and they were able to help me out. You can check them out if you want at http://www.trustetc.com. I’ve had a few hangups, but once I knew what I was doing it went pretty smoothly.

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