After 16 years in the self-directed IRA industry, I've gained insight into some of the major complaints and pain points of self-directed IRA investors. As a real estate investor myself, I'm empathetic to these challenges- especially as someone who works behind the scenes to create excellent customer experiences.
With my experience working in all aspects of self-directed IRAs and real estate IRAs, from marketing to business development, I've had the opportunity to learn from savvy self-directed IRA investors of all levels. My focus was to learn from some of the more complex transactions such as real estate because most self-directed IRA owners invest in real estate in one form or another; rental property, mortgage notes, real estate shares in private placements, etc.
After much research and discussion with our clients as to why they've moved their individual retirement account to IRAR Trust Company, here's what I've found. These are the top 3 things investors hate about their previous self-directed IRA company, in this order- directly from our clients:
#1 Lack of Industry Knowledge
This is the biggest client complaint across the board- custodians whose staff just doesn't know their stuff. It's very alarming to hear clients complaining, frustrated they've had to pay fees to the IRS because of a custodian error. Yes, sometimes mistakes do happen, and sometimes (though infrequently) these can be corrected. But you need to know where you went wrong to correct your mistake- if you don't have the knowledge to know you've made a mistake, how can you correct the error?
A financial institution whose staff lacks knowledge in the following can cost an investor their retirement plan and/or lose all tax advantages:
- processing IRA investment
- retirement account investing rules
- alternative investment(s) not allowed in their state
- identifying a prohibited transaction and a disqualified person
- real estate investing process and rules
- self directed Roth IRA vs Traditional IRA rules
When talking to a self-directed IRA custodian, focus on how well versed in IRA investing the individuals you are talking to truly are, as these are usually the people handling the transactions for your IRA account. Assessing their level of expertise does not require any special powers— they either answer your questions knowledgeably or they don't. You will know, especially if you have been self-directing your retirement for some time.
Some key things to look for are:
- How often they need to escalate your inquiry to get you an answer?
- How long does that take- one day, two days?
- How fast do you get a response?
- When you speak to a manager, is that manager knowledgeable?
- Do they understand the type of investment you are interested in?
- Do they have any knowledge in buying real estate in an IRA if that is of your interest?
- How long have they been in the industry or is this their first day on the job?
I don't blame IRA holders for listing "lack of knowledge" as the #1 thing they hate about custodians, I would too.
#2 Phone Trees and No Response
"It's nice to not have to wade through a computerized phone system or be put on hold by clericals that don't know what you're talking about; experiences we were glad to leave behind with our previous IRA custodians."
I had to share this one because it so perfectly supports complaint #1- and honestly, who likes to be put on eternal hold or to never get a response? You could clearly hear the frustration from this client. It makes sense that, as an investor, you would want to talk to a human to make sure all your questions are answered fully and completely. After all, the company holds your hard-earned retirement dollars- you should be able to reach a live person when needed.
I had a personal experience with a cable provider, one you may be familiar with. They had great marketing, they spent a lot of ad space talking about all the wonderful and personal services they offered. They regularly touted that their clients were their number one priority- but when I needed it, I could never get someone on the phone to answer a simple question.
I was transferred from one person to the next, to different departments and different levels of support, because no one could provide an answer. They had different priorities- and none of them were providing me with knowledgeable assistance when needed.
Although the company offers many different services, not just cable, in the end, it wasn't a good fit. For one, I only really needed cable- their other services didn't appeal to me and the bundles they offered only ended up costing me money I didn't need to spend.
I also wanted a personable experience (not some nameless phone tree), someone who would speak to me like I was more than just a number and a wallet. But most importantly, I wanted to be able to speak to a knowledgeable person who could help me when I had questions.
I did transfer my account to another provider, one that is exclusively a cable provider- they know their space and can offer me exactly what I want and need, without all the expensive add-ons.
This seems to be the issue with larger custodians that offer too many services— when they're spread too thin, no one benefits, especially not the IRA owner.
Say you are interested in using your IRA to invest in real estate (or anything other than stocks, bonds, and mutual funds) — to avoid frustrations, find out if the custodian has experience in real estate investments. Perhaps they have a real estate department or dedicated staff to handle special real estate IRA inquiries. If so, are these representatives Certified IRA Services Professionals (CISP). This means that not only are they experts in real estate IRAs but they also took a special course to master retirement accounts.
It's nice to get someone on the phone, but it's no good if they don't know what they're talking about (and therefore can't help you).
#3 Fees and Invoices
Sometimes self-directed IRA custodians aren't very transparent with how they charge their fees and the IRA holder doesn't know any better. Do you know what you are paying for, and how much? When funds leave your account, do you understand why? If you can't get the details of your transactions or if it sounds too confusing- beware.
A custodian should be transparent when it comes to fees, both when and how they are charged. Read the fine print on how these are handled- the fees associated with your IRA account are usually for the administration of the retirement account and transaction fees for the investment (buy, sell, wire, etc.) but you'll want to make sure you know what you're agreeing to pay beforehand.
I want to drive home how important it is to consider what fees you're paying with your self-directed IRA— the wrong retirement account or fee schedule can eat up your retirement funds as fast as you put them away.
There have been many Ponzi schemes targeting retirement savings, with providers charging out the nose for additional fees or services without providing any added value. Maybe you've heard of the Home Depot class-action lawsuit, with allegations of fund mismanagement and exorbitant plan fees, leading to losses of over $120 million for plan participants? Or Mark Malik- a 33-year old investment banker who eventually bilked investors out of over $100 million?
Though you can't control scammers and mismanagement, you can keep yourself aware of your account activity and balance, which should help prevent massive fraud. Were the investors properly monitoring their IRA account activity? And if they were, did they understand the invoice or statement? When they called to inquire about the charges, was there a live, knowledgeable person to answer their questions?
Bad actors are going to find a way to scam people no matter what, but by monitoring your account and making well-thought-out investment decisions, you can work on protecting your retirement fund from the worst. Here is a link to the Securities and Exchange Commission for resources on how to report a scam.
Getting your account opened with a self-directed IRA custodian you can trust is an essential step in saving for your retirement. Even if you're already investing, it's never too late to move your funds to a company that meets your needs.
When talking to representatives, ask yourself the following:
- Are they knowledgeable and know what they're talking about?
- Is it easy to get ahold of someone who can help me?
- Are they clear and transparent about their fees and how they charge?
- If you are going to purchase real estate, are they well versed in self-directed IRA real estate investments including commercial real estate?
- Did they go over your investment options and tax benefits?
- Did they explain all their fees?
These are the types of questions that every investor should be asking because they truly reveal how a company functions behind the scenes— the type of thing that can make or break a retirement account.
Do you have any questions about how to move your self-directed IRA to IRAR Trust Company? Is there anything you'd like to ask about our fees or service? We'd love to help- request a free consultation and one of our Certified IRA Services Professionals (CISPs) will get back to you shortly.
Self-Directed IRA Custodian FAQs
What is a self-directed IRA custodian?
A self-directed IRA custodian or real estate IRA custodian is a financial institution that holds your IRA's investments. They usually hold alternative assets such as real estate and private stock. They do not endorse or provide any products or investment advice— allowing you to make all of the investment choices for your IRA. Custodians are regulated, audited, and adheres to IRS rules and guidelines.
Do you need a custodian for a self-directed IRA?
Yes. You need a custodian to have any type of IRA. However, there are companies like administrators and providers that are not custodians but work with a custodian— these are not regulated by a government entity like custodians.
How do I choose a self-directed IRA custodian?
The best way to find the right custodian for your self-directed IRA is to conduct due diligence. Compare companies based on your investment of choice. Some custodians may focus on certain assets like private equity, precious metals, or real estate— while others on an investment strategy like an IRA LLC. Make sure to compare custodians and fee structures before choosing and investing.