Directing Your IRA To Costa Rica

The Mysterious Disappearance of the “Equity Buyer”

It doesn’t take a real estate tycoon to figure out the primary reason for the decline in Costa Rica real estate activity— the disappearance of the “equity buyer” [noun- a mortgage holder who uses the amount of ownership built up through payments and appreciation to purchase additional real property]. With the banking industry on its heels at the beginning of 2007 (and flat on its butt by the end of the year) and home values at record lows, those buyers with a desire to invest in Costa Rica property were seemingly left without this viable capital source.

Yet the optimist in me feels compelled (at 6am on a Tuesday morning) to share a couple of thoughts and possible solutions for people who want to be down here. And let me tell you, if there is one market factor that has not changed it is that people love Costa Rica.

A Little Known Fact– The Self-Directed IRA

I had a client contact me recently with her desire to purchase land in our area of Costa Rica. She is a real estate professional from Florida and knowledgeable about buying property in Costa Rica. Her approach was, via a third-party investment trust company, to self-directed funds from her United States IRA (Independent Retirement Account) to buy land in Costa Rica. After our initial discussion, I did a little research.

I discovered that in 1974 Americans were allowed to invest tax-deferred retirement funds in real estate and, get this, foreign real estate! Even though it wasn’t publicized (or understood), this was a landmark moment in the evolution of the Internal Revenue Code. And even now, many people are unaware of the diverse benefits of switching from a traditional IRA to a Self-Directed IRA.

The benefits will appeal to many IRA owners—

  • Tax-deferred: The U.S. government allows this money to be used for purchasing land outside of the U.S. on a tax-deferred basis as long as the funds are not withdrawn before retirement age. This means you can purchase any type of legally owned property (i.e., a house, a condo, raw land, commercial property) in Costa Rica. For those of you who have always dreamed of growing your own food on a large farm or just simply retiring in a resort community, this presents a magnificent option.
  • Control: Unlike stocks, owners can have a direct affect on the property’s appreciative value by making improvements to the land or structures. This added sense of control over your real property investment can be appealing for those who are tired of stocks being improperly managed by a broker or financial advisor.
  • Income: ANY income generated by the property goes back into the IRA account. In the examples of rental income generation via houses and luxury estates, this is an attractive investment benefit… especially considering the burgeoning market of tourists who now vacation in the southern Pacific zone. (2008 tourist arrivals were estimated at 2.2 million, up from 2007’s total of 1.97 million)
  • Financing: Property purchased by your Self-Directed IRA can also be financed, as long as the purchase is structured properly.

Allow me to share a few considerations if you are contemplating this financial move:

Self-Directed IRAs are similar to traditional IRAs except they must be managed by a financial custodian, typically a trust company. The custodian is actually the entity that buys the real estate on your behalf. My client is using Equity Trust, but there are many options (e.g., Sunwest Trust) and I encourage you to investigate their level of experience investing in Costa Rica, as well as, their annual fees.

It is also important to keep some additional liquid funds (cash) in your Self-Directed IRA, property taxes (In Costa Rica only .5% – 1.5% of declared property value) and other necessary payments that need to be made, via the custodian.

Finally, if you are under 59 & ½, you cannot use this foreign investment as your primary residence or vacation home. However, my client (who wishes to retire in Costa Rica in the near future) has devised the wonderful strategy of buying a big piece with her Self-Directed IRA funds and also buying a smaller adjacent piece with her personal savings. We also discussed segregating a buildable parcel of land off a larger farm to facilitate this idea. This way she can monitor and improve her larger piece while living on the smaller parcel, thus holding to this Self-Directed IRA restriction. For those over 59 and ½, great news…. this residential restriction does not apply!

Even for those American investors who are years away from retiring, the Self-Directed IRA is a fantastic option for those looking to invest or relocate to Costa Rica. And speaking from personal experience, there’s no where IRA-ther be.

Interested in Costa Rica real estate as an investment. They primarily live somewhere else, but they own property in Costa Rica for the asset appreciation potential as well as possible rental income. Some just buy and hold (land-bank). For developed properties, the investor has a vacation home to visit as desired.

Migrators spend a regular amount of time in Costa Rica during each year.

Re-locators are those that are looking to move to Costa Rica from wherever they are. They will live full-time in Costa Rica.