How To Work With Your Company 401(K) Plan When You Want To Invest In Real Estate
  • Ken Holman

How To Work With Your Company 401(K) Plan When You Want To Invest In Real Estate

A survey conducted some time ago by Schwab Retirement Plan Services revealed that 57 percent of respondents struggled with choosing the right investments for their 401(k) account and 68 percent lacked confidence in their own ability to make the right 401(k) investment choices.


Does this sound familiar?

This is a common situation among 401(k) plan owners. They wind up being in a Catch 22 situation with the person hired by the company to help advise them with their investment choices. The stockbroker, financial planner or plan administrator who is advising the individual employees of their 401(k) investment choices doesn’t want the responsibility or liability of actually picking out the investments for the plan owners. So they give some suggestions as to the categories of mutual funds they can invest in, but they do not actually make the decision for them.


The 401(k) plan owner doesn’t have a clue which mutual funds are really best for them to have. So the 401(k) plan owner makes a series of uninformed investment choices and waits a year for the adviser to tell him or her whether their investment choices were wise or foolish.

Dalbar, Inc., a reputable financial research firm, did a 20-year study and found that the average mutual fund investor earned an average annual return of 3.27 percent. That barely keeps up with inflation, let alone grows personal portfolio wealth for retirement! To make matters worse, about 60 percent of all 401(k) plan assets are held in one or more of the 14,000 available mutual funds. In most cases, the company gets paid certain fees for allowing the advisers to operate exclusively with the 401(k) plan owners. It seems the only ones making money with this process are the plan advisers and the company sponsoring the plan.

Does this scenario match your experience?


When you were hired, the company offered you a 401(k) plan with T. Rowe Price or Fidelity or some other large stock brokerage firm your company was affiliated with. You were given a copy of the Summary 401(k) Plan Description. A representative of your company or the stock brokerage firm then sat down with you and explained the company contribution matching policy and discussed things like your risk tolerance, your goals for your retirement account, etc.


After some deliberation, the representative explained the importance of diversification and asset allocation and suggested a number of mutual fund options you could select from. If you didn’t like their suggestions, you could pick from any number of the other 14,000 mutual funds that are traded publicly, as long as their company offered them. You were never given an option to select an investment product that was not part of your plan provider’s choices.

From there, you began contributing to your company 401(k) plan and the company provided the appropriate match, usually a 100 percent match up to 3 percent of your income and a 50 percent match on the next 2 percent of your income, for a total match of 4 percent of your income.


This approach reminds me of how Boss Hogg handled Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in Dukes of Hazzard. When Coltrane asked what his cut would be on some nefarious deal, Boss Hogg would say something like, “Why, your cut will be 3 percent of 2 percent of 4 percent.” Coltrane was always giddy with excitement because the cut sounded big, but it really was infinitesimally small if you ran the calculation.


How does the company matching contribution work?

Say you are making $100,000 and elect to contribute to your 401(k) plan. For every dollar you put into your retirement account up to $3,000, the company will match it 100 percent. Then, if you contribute another $2,000, the company will match up to 50 percent, for a total company matching contribution of $4,000. In essence, you contribute $5,000 to your 401(k) plan and the company will contribute an additional $4,000. That’s a pretty good deal that you should always take if it’s available to you. It’s almost like free money.


Are other options available?

Now, suppose you have been with the company a number of years. You’ve contributed a lot of money to your 401(k) plan. The company has contributed the appropriate matching funds. What’s the next step if your 401(k) plan has been underperforming? Can you simply go to your plan provider and say you want out? Will they let you invest in alternative investments that may give you a higher overall return? The answer is no. Even though it’s your money, you are limited in your investment choices.


If you go to your plan provider and tell them you want to transfer your money to another retirement program that offers a better return or to invest in alternative investments like real estate, they will tell you that you can’t transfer your funds from the plan until you retire or your employment is terminated. Well, if you read the plan documents, that statement is not entirely true. Your company’s plan description does outline a number of options available to you to take money from your 401(k) and invest in alternative investments like income-producing real estate. You just have to make the right moves.


Investing solely in mutual funds and bonds with your retirement funds is not a smart way to build your retirement wealth. You need to be buying alternative investments like income-producing real estate. At retirement, mutual funds get sold to provide sufficient income to live on. On the other hand, real estate assets generate income and continue to appreciate in value without the necessity of being liquidated at retirement.


How do you control your retirement funds?

Here’s a few ideas I have discovered that will give you control over your retirement funds. These ideas allow you to take advantage of the company match while freeing up capital to buy alternative investments, like income-producing real estate, which usually offer higher predictable returns and create a more profitable path to retirement wealth accumulation.

First, review your company’s plan description to see if it permits an in-service withdrawal. Most plans permit withdrawing funds from your vested retirement account when you reach the age of 59 ½. At that age, you can keep your existing company 401(k) plan going but can withdraw money from the account and roll it into another self-directed retirement account, like an IRA or Individual 401(k). If you are going to invest in income-producing real estate, I recommend rolling your money into a self-directed individual or solo 401(k) rather than an IRA.


Second, see if your current 401(k) plan permits you to withdraw any deductible employee contributions (DEC) while you are still working for your employer. A DEC contribution is any qualified voluntary contribution, i.e., any amount contributed on behalf of any individual to a plan described in Internal Revenue Code §501(c)(18), that is made after Dec. 31, 1981 and allowable as a deductible contribution in the taxable year. That means the employee portion of the contribution may be permitted to be withdrawn and transferred to another qualified self-directed retirement account.


Third, review your plan to see if it permits plan participants to borrow money from the 401(k) plan. Usually, the amount you are permitted to borrow is up to $50,000 or 50 percent of the vested account balance, whichever is less. So, if you have $100,000 in your retirement account, you can borrow $50,000 and invest it in income-producing real estate. You are required to pay the loan back, usually at a rate of prime plus 1 percent. Assuming the Wall Street Journal Prime Rate is 3.25 percent, your loan repayment rate would be 4.25 percent. If you can earn 8 percent cash-on-cash return on your income-producing real estate investment, you pick up the spread of 3.75 percent. The interest you pay on your 401(k) loan is money you pay back to your own retirement account over five years.


Fourth, only contribute enough to your company 401(k) plan to get the company matching contribution. In our example, you contributed $5,000 in your account and received $4,000 in matching contributions. That means you could invest an additional $12,500 in another qualified plan that permits alternative investments, since the employee contribution limit permitted by the IRS in 2014 is $17,500 if you are under 50. If you are 50 or older, the limit is $23,000, so you could invest an additional $18,000.


Fifth, set up an alternative self-directed individual or solo 401(k) plan that permits you to control the retirement funds and invest them in alternative investments, like income-producing real estate. You must meet the eligibility requirements for these plans, but that is not too difficult. They can even be used in conjunction with an S-corporation or limited liability company (LLC) where you have full control and check-signing ability.


Finally, when you terminate your employment, rollover all the available retirement funds from your existing company 401(k) plan and begin investing in alternative income-producing real estate and other types of investments that yield higher returns. Don’t keep your money in the company 401(k) plan.


In conclusion, my advice would be to ask the company representative if you can invest directly in real estate. If they tell you that you cannot invest directly in real estate, then find a third party administrator (TPA) where you can set up a self-directed individual or solo 401(k) plan or self-directed IRA plan. Then start investing some or all of your 401(k) retirement funds directly in income-producing real estate with a reputable, experienced real estate professional.


The most experienced real estate professionals hold the CCA (Certified Commercial Advisor) Designation through the National Association of Real Estate Advisors (NAREA). As president of that organization, I can vouch for their qualifications. If you don’t know a CCA member who can help you set up a self-directed individual or solo 401(k) account, contact me directly. I can help.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken has been in the real estate business for over 40 years and has personally overseen the development and management of over $350 million worth of assets. Ken holds a B.S. degree in Accounting from Brigham Young University, a MBA from the University of Utah. Licensed real estate broker since 1976. He holds the following designations: CCIM, CPM, CRS,CCA. Served as the president of the Utah Apartment Association.

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