Guide to Self-directed IRAs (SDIRA)

By Austin Kilham · August 24, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Guide to Self-directed IRAs (SDIRA)

Individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, typically allow for a lot of flexibility in the kinds of investments you can make, from stocks and bonds to mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

However, most IRAs don’t allow certain alternative investments like precious metals, real estate, and cryptocurrency. If you want to hold assets like these in your retirement account, you’ll need a self directed IRA (SDIRA), a specific type of Roth or traditional IRA.

What Is a Self-Directed IRA (SDIRA)?

Self directed IRAs and self directed Roth IRAs allow account holders to buy and sell a wider variety of investments than regular traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Experienced investors, familiar with sophisticated or risky investments, often use these.

While a custodian or a trustee administers the SDIRA, the account holder typically manages the allocation themselves, taking on responsibility for researching investments and due diligence. These accounts may also come with higher fees than regular IRAs, which can cut into the size of your retirement nest egg over time.

What Assets Can You Put in a Self-Directed IRA or a Self-Directed Roth IRA?

Individuals can hold a number of unique alternative investments in their SDIRA, including but not limited to:

•   Real estate and land

•   Cryptocurrency

•   Precious metals

•   Mineral, oil, and gas rights

•   Water rights

•   LLC membership interest

•   Tax liens

•   Foreign currency

•   Startups through crowdfunding platforms

Recommended: Types of Alternative Investments

Types of SDIRAs

There are specific kinds of SDIRAs customized to investors looking for certain types of investments. The different types include:

Self-directed SEP IRAs

Simplified Employee Pension IRAs (SEP IRAs) are for small business owners or those who are self-employed so that they can make contributions that are tax deductible for themselves and any eligible employees they might have. This type of retirement account gives them the flexibility to invest in alternative investments.

Self-directed SIMPLE IRAs

A Savings Incentive Match Plan IRA (SIMPLE IRA) is a tax-deferred retirement plan for employers and employees of small businesses. Both the employer and the employees can make contributions to this plan. It allows for some alternative kinds of investments.

Recommended: SIMPLE IRA vs Traditional

Self-directed Cryptocurrency IRAS

There are a number of self-directed IRAs that investors can use for cryptocurrency investments if they are interested in crypto. This type of retirement account may be best for those who have experience with cryptocurrency.

Self-directed Precious Metal IRAs

Similarly, there are self-directed IRAs for those who would like to invest in precious metals like gold. However, be aware that some precious metal IRAs may charge higher fees than the market price for precious metals.

How Do Self-Directed IRAs Work?

Now that you know the answer to the question, what is a self directed IRA?, it’s important to understand how these accounts work and the self directed IRA rules. You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the guidelines regarding opening an IRA if you have a 401(k).

Aside from their ability to hold otherwise off-limits alternative investments, SDIRAs work much like their traditional counterparts. SDIRAs are tax-advantaged retirement accounts, and they can come in two flavors: traditional SDIRAs and Roth SDIRAs.

Traditional IRA Contributions and Withdrawal Rules

IRA contributions to traditional accounts goes in before taxes, which reduces investors’ taxable income, lowering their income tax bill in the year they make the contribution. For 2023, individuals can contribute up to $6,500 in total across accounts. Those age 50 and up can make an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution for a total of $7,500. Investments inside the account grow tax-deferred.

It’s important to pay close attention to self directed IRA rules, particularly rules for IRA withdrawals. Once individuals begin to make withdrawals at age 59 ½, they are taxed at normal income tax rates. Account holders who make withdrawals before that age may owe taxes and a possible 10% early withdrawal penalty. Traditional SDIRA account holders must begin making required minimum distributions (RMDs) after age 73.

Roth IRA Contributions and Withdrawal Rules

Roth SDIRAs have the same contribution limits as traditional SDIRAs. However, retirement savers contribute to Roths with after-tax dollars. Investments inside the account grow tax-free, and withdrawals after age 59 ½ aren’t subject to income tax.

Roths are also not subject to RMD rules. As long as an individual has had the account for at least five years (as defined by the IRS), they can withdraw Roth contributions at any time without penalty, though earnings may be subject to tax if withdrawn before age 59 ½.

There are also rules restricting who can contribute to a Roth IRA, based on their income. In 2023, Roth eligibility begins phasing out at $138,000 for single people, and $218,000 for people who are married and file their taxes jointly.

Individuals can maintain both traditional and Roth IRA accounts, however, contributions limits are cumulative across accounts, and cannot exceed $6,500, or $7,500 for those 50 and over.

Traditional vs Roth SDIRA

There are some differences between a self-directed traditional IRA and a self-directed Roth IRA.

With a traditional SDIRA, you save pre-tax money for your retirement, just like you do with a traditional IRA plan. You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it, which you can do without penalty starting at age 59 ½. However, a self-directed traditional IRA gives you the flexibility to invest in alternative assets, like real estate or precious metals.

With a self-directed Roth IRA, just like a regular Roth IRA, you make after-tax contributions to the plan. The withdrawals you make starting at age 59 ½ are tax-free, as long as you have had the account for at least five years, according to the five-year rule. With this type of self-directed IRA, you can invest in alternative investments, such as private equity, real estate, and precious metals.

💡 Quick Tip: Investment fees are assessed in different ways, including trading costs, account management fees, and possibly broker commissions. When you set up an investment account, be sure to get the exact breakdown of your “all-in costs” so you know what you’re paying.

Pros and Cons of Self-Directed IRAs

Self-directed IRAs offer unique perks for the right investor. However, those interested must weigh those benefits against potential drawbacks.

Benefits of Self-Directed IRAs

An SDIRA allows investors to branch out into different types of investments to which they might otherwise not have access. This allows investors to seek out potentially higher returns and diversify their portfolios beyond the offerings in traditional IRAs.

Alternative investments have the potential to offer higher returns than investors might achieve with stock market investments. However, investors beware: These opportunities for higher rewards come at the price of higher risk.

Also, investors’ ability to hold a broader spectrum of investments that can help them diversify their portfolio and potentially manage risks, such as inflation risk or longevity risk, the chance an investor will run out of money before they die. For example, some SDIRAs allow investors to hold gold, a traditional hedge against inflation.

Drawbacks of Self-Directed IRAs

While there are some very real advantages to using SDIRAs, these must be weighed against their disadvantages.

For starters, investments like stocks and shares of ETFs are highly liquid. Investors who need their money quickly can sell them in a relatively short period of time, usually a matter of days.

However, some of the investments available in SDIRAs are not liquid. For example, real estate, physical commodities like precious metals, or some types of cryptocurrency may take quite a bit of time to sell if you need to access your money. Individuals who need to sell these assets quickly may find themselves in a situation in which they must accept less than they believe the asset is worth.

SDIRAs may also carry higher fees. Individuals who hold regular IRA accounts may not have to pay management or investment fees. However, SDIRA holders may have to pay fees associated with holding the account and with the purchase and maintenance of certain assets.

Finally, SDIRAs place a lot of responsibility in the hands of their account holders. Investors must research investments themselves and perform due diligence to make sure that whatever they’re buying is legitimate and matches their risk tolerance.

What’s more, investors must make sure the assets they hold meet IRS rules. Running afoul of these rules can be costly, in some cases causing investors to pay taxes and penalties.
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of SDIRAs at a glance:



Tax-advantaged growth. Contributions to traditional accounts are tax deductible. Investments grow tax-deferred in traditional accounts and tax-free in Roth accounts. Not liquid. Selling alternative investments may be slow and difficult.
Same contribution limits as regular IRAs. In 2023, individuals can contribute up to $6,500 a year, or $7,500 for those aged 50 and up. Higher fees. Individuals may be on the hook for account fees and fees associated with alternative investments.
Higher returns. Alternative investments may offer higher returns than those available in the stock market. Increased responsibility. Investors must research investments carefully themselves and ensure they stay within rules for approved IRA investments.
Diversification. SDIRAs offer investors the ability to invest in assets beyond the stock and bond markets. Higher risk. Alternative investments tend to be riskier than more traditional investments.

4 Steps to Opening a Self-Directed IRA

Investors who want to open an SDIRA will need to take the following steps:

1. Find a custodian or trustee.

This can be a bank, trust company, or another IRS-approved entity. You’ll need to follow their requirements for opening an IRA account. Some SDIRAs specialize in certain asset classes, so look for a custodian that allows you to invest in the asset classes in which you’re interested.

2. Choose investments.

Decide which alternatives you want to hold in your SDIRA. Perform necessary research and due diligence.

3. Complete the transaction.

Find a reputable dealer from which your custodian can purchase the assets, and ask them to complete the sale.

4. Plan withdrawals carefully.

Because alternative assets have less liquidity than other types of investments, you may need to plan sales well in advance of needing retirement income or meeting any required minimum distributions.

Investing in Your Retirement With SoFi

If you’re opening your first IRA account, you’re likely best served with a traditional or Roth IRA. Because of the complications involved in using an SDIRA, only sophisticated investors should consider it.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Easily manage your retirement savings with a SoFi IRA.


Are self-directed IRAs a good idea?

There are advantages and disadvantages to self-directed IRAs. Benefits include the fact that you can make alternative types of investments you might not otherwise be able to. That could help you diversify your portfolio and potentially increase your returns.

However, there are drawbacks to SDIRAs, including higher risk because alternative investments tend to be riskier, and potentially higher fees for maintenance of investments in the plan and account fees. In addition, investors need to research the investments themselves and follow the IRS rules carefully to make sure they comply. Finally, many alternative investments are not liquid, which means they could take longer and be more difficult to sell.

Can you set up a self-directed IRA yourself?

To set up a self-directed IRA, find a custodian or trustee such as a bank or trust company to open an account, research and choose your investments, find a reputable dealer for the investments you’d like to make, and have your custodian complete the transactions.

How much money can you put in a self-directed IRA?

In 2023, you can contribute up to $6,500 to a traditional or Roth self-directed IRA, plus an additional $1,000 if you’re 50 or older.

Photo credit: iStock/Andres Victorero

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