A Beginner’s Guide to Using Super to Buy Investment Property

  • Gareth LaneGareth Lane
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    This information has been reviewed by our SMSF Mates before it was published as part of our review process.

In recent years, SMSFs have become increasingly popular due to the enticing benefits they offer for property investment. As a favoured choice for Australians planning their retirement, it’s important to delve into this trend and understand the opportunities and complexities involved.

While the idea of using super to purchase property may sound appealing, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the process is not straightforward. The rules and regulations surrounding SMSFs and property investment are complex, often leaving potential investors confused. However, fear not, as we aim to provide clarity and guide you through this intricate process, empowering you to make informed decisions.

Can I Invest my Super in Property?

Let’s begin by understanding what an SMSF is. An SMSF, which stands for Self-Managed Superannuation Fund, is a distinctive type of superannuation fund that provides members with the opportunity to control their investments, granting them increased autonomy when it comes to managing their superannuation. Unlike conventional funds where investment decisions are made by fund managers, an SMSF empowers its members to make their own choices.

One significant advantage of SMSFs is the flexibility they offer in terms of investment options. Property investment, in particular, has gained considerable attention. Yes, you can indeed use your super to invest in property, but it’s important to follow specific rules.

First and foremost, any property purchased through an SMSF must meet the requirements of the ‘sole purpose test.’ Simply put, the primary objective of your SMSF should be to provide retirement benefits to its members. Therefore, any investment, including property, must align with this purpose and may also serve certain ancillary purposes such as benefits upon death or incapacity.


Rules and Regulations for SMSF Property Investment

To delve deeper into the possibilities of SMSF property investment, we must understand the nuances of the governing rules and regulations.

Residential property investment through an SMSF, for instance, is constrained by certain restrictions. Fundamentally, trustees of the fund or their relatives are not permitted to live in or rent the residential property. This means that the property cannot serve as a personal home or a holiday home for trustees or their family members. Also, it’s noteworthy that pre-existing residential properties cannot be transferred into an SMSF, even at market value.

On the other hand, investing in commercial property via an SMSF offers certain advantages over residential properties, albeit with its own set of limitations. However, commercial properties can indeed be sold to an SMSF by its members and can even be rented out to related parties, given a specific set of conditions are met including that the lease needs to be at arm’s length, i.e., on commercial terms.

The key consideration here is that the rent paid for commercial properties must align with market rates and should be timely paid in full. This not only ensures financial prudence but also maintains adherence to the SMSF’s primary objective – to provide retirement benefits for its members, a criterion commonly known as the sole purpose test.

An essential part of these regulations involves continual compliance, where all assets must be valued at their market rate. Particularly for commercial properties with a gross rental income exceeding $75,000 per annum, it becomes mandatory for the fund to register for GST.

It’s worth noting that the property must be held in the name of the trustee of the bare trust, a unique trust structure required when leveraging an SMSF for property investment. Additionally, any renovations or improvements on the property should ideally be funded from the SMSF, and not borrowed money. Significant changes to the original asset could necessitate a new Limited Recourse Borrowing Arrangement (LRBA), adding another layer of complexity to the process.

As we explore these rules and regulations, the need for due diligence becomes abundantly clear. Being aware of these details can enable a seamless property investment journey with your SMSF, helping you maximise your retirement benefits. It’s essential to keep in mind that breaching these rules can lead to severe penalties, including making the SMSF non-compliant, which can result in heavy tax implications.


Commercial Property vs Residential Property: Which is better for SMSFs?

Navigating the landscape of property investment through SMSFs requires a clear understanding of the differences and comparative benefits of commercial and residential properties.

Commercial properties can often be a more favourable choice for SMSFs, providing specific advantages that are absent in residential property investment. One notable advantage is the potential for higher rental returns. Commercial properties generally offer better yields than residential properties, which can translate into a more substantial income for your SMSF. Moreover, commercial properties tend to have longer lease terms, providing a steady and predictable cash flow.

Additionally, unlike residential properties, an SMSF is permitted to lease commercial property to a business owned by a fund member, provided it’s conducted at market rates. This provides a unique opportunity for business owners to channel rent directly into their superannuation, thereby bolstering their retirement funds.

However, investment in commercial properties does bring its own set of challenges. Commercial properties can often carry a higher purchase and maintenance cost, and may also be more sensitive to economic fluctuations. Consequently, they might suffer longer vacancy periods during economic downturns, which could affect the fund’s cash flow.

Residential properties, conversely, can offer a more affordable entry point for property investment through an SMSF. Despite generally lower rental yields compared to commercial properties, residential properties often present lower risks. They tend to have shorter vacancy periods, thus delivering a more consistent income stream.

That said, it’s crucial to remember the restrictions associated with residential properties in an SMSF. The property cannot be rented by or provide any direct benefits to fund members or their relatives. Furthermore, pre-existing residential properties cannot be transferred into the SMSF, limiting the range of potential investments.

From a tax perspective, both types of properties within an SMSF can benefit from concessions. Rental income is taxed at a concessional rate of 15%, and if the property is sold during the pension phase, no capital gains tax is payable. However, this tax concession underscores another reason why SMSFs need to ensure their property investments align with the sole purpose test.

Finally, given the complexity of SMSF regulations and their potential for frequent changes, it’s always recommended that you seek professional advice when dealing with SMSFs.


Understanding the Costs Involved

The prospect of purchasing a property through a Self Managed Super Fund (SMSF) may sound enticing, but it’s crucial to have a comprehensive understanding of the costs involved. Such costs can significantly impact your super balance and overall return on investment. Let’s delve into the significant fees and charges that accompany property investment within an SMSF, and explore their potential impact.

Establishment Costs

Before investing in a property, an SMSF must be set up, which entails various fees. These include the fund establishment fee, costs associated with drafting a trust deed, and legal expenses. Additionally, if you intend to buy a property through a Limited Recourse Borrowing Arrangement (LRBA), you’ll need to establish a bare trust, which will incur additional setup costs.

Ongoing Fees

Managing an SMSF involves annual costs such as auditing fees, tax return preparation, and regulatory fees. If you engage the services of an SMSF professional, such as an accountant or financial adviser, their charges will also constitute a part of your ongoing fees.

Property Purchase Costs

Similar to any traditional property purchase, you will encounter several costs when buying a property through your SMSF. These may include stamp duty and conveyancing fees, which are often calculated as a percentage of the property value. Inspection costs and loan establishment fees may also apply if you’re borrowing under an LRBA.

Property Management Costs

Once you own a property, there are numerous costs to consider, including property management fees, council rates, insurance, maintenance and repair costs, and potentially strata fees for multi-unit properties.

Sale Costs

When the time comes to let go of the property, it’s essential to keep in mind the costs such as estate agent commissions, advertising outlays, and fees for legal services. Plus, if the property is sold before the fund shifts into the pension phase, be aware that capital gains tax may apply.

Interest and Loan Repayments

If you’ve borrowed to purchase the property through an LRBA, you will also need to account for interest costs and regular loan repayments.

The accumulation of these costs can have a significant impact on the super balance. While property investment can be a fruitful long-term strategy, the costs involved can deplete your SMSF balance, especially in the initial years. It’s therefore crucial to ensure you have adequate funds within your SMSF to cover these expenses while still maintaining a diverse portfolio.

While exploring property investment opportunities with your SMSF, it’s essential to remain vigilant of potential conflicts of interest. Some property investment seminars or advisers may provide referrals to specific developers or real estate agents. They may receive hefty referral fees for these recommendations, which could influence the advice they provide. Be mindful of this potential conflict and ensure that any property investment you consider aligns with your SMSF investment strategy and risk profile.


Choosing the Right Property for Your SMSF

When investing your SMSF in property, making the right choice is critical to securing your financial future. Property selection is a nuanced process that requires careful thought, due diligence, and, ideally, professional advice. Here, we’ll discuss the considerations for choosing the right property and the importance of focusing on income and capital growth potential rather than personal preferences.

Considerations for Choosing the Right Property

  • Property Type: As we’ve discussed earlier, both residential and commercial properties come with their own unique benefits and challenges. Your choice should align with your investment strategy, risk tolerance, and retirement goals.
  • Location: The property’s location significantly influences its potential for capital growth and rental yield. Consider factors such as local amenities, transport links, and future development plans in the area.
  • Market Conditions: Be aware of the property market conditions, both nationally and locally. Understand the supply and demand dynamics, property values, and rental yields in your desired area.
  • Growth Prospects: Look for a property with strong prospects for capital growth. Research local property market trends, population growth, and economic factors.
  • Rental Yield: If your strategy is geared towards income, consider the property’s potential rental yield. Higher rental yields can contribute significantly to your SMSF balance.
  • Property Condition: The property’s condition will affect your ongoing maintenance costs and potential for capital improvements. A property in poor condition could lead to high repair costs.
  • Diversification: While property can be a rewarding investment, it’s important not to put all your eggs in one basket. Ensure your SMSF maintains a diversified portfolio to spread risk.

Income and Capital Growth Over Personal Preferences

One of the critical aspects of choosing a property for your SMSF is focusing on income potential and capital growth, rather than personal preferences. Remember, this property is an investment for your retirement, not a home for you or your family. It should meet the ‘sole purpose test,’ providing retirement benefits to its members. Your decisions should be based on sound financial reasoning rather than emotional attachment.

Necessity of Professional Advice

Given the complexities and potential pitfalls of property investment within an SMSF, professional advice is highly recommended. Engaging with a financial advisor can provide you with a clear understanding of the suitability of property investment for your SMSF, based on your individual circumstances and financial goals. Furthermore, a property expert can offer valuable insights into the property market, helping you select a property that offers robust returns.


How Does a Self Managed Super Fund Borrow to Buy Property?

One of the key elements enabling a Self Managed Super Fund (SMSF) to invest in property is a specific kind of loan arrangement known as the Limited Recourse Borrowing Arrangement (LRBA). This arrangement provides a framework through which an SMSF can borrow money for property investments, while limiting the lender’s recourse in the event of a default. Essentially, this means that only the asset purchased under the LRBA can be claimed by the lender, and the rest of the SMSF’s assets remain protected.

The journey commences when the trustee of the SMSF opts to procure a property. Rather than making a direct purchase, the trustee sets up what’s known as a ‘bare trust’ (or holding trust), complete with its own separate trustee. This bare trust then proceeds to acquire the property, utilising funds from both the SMSF and the LRBA. This arrangement ensures that, whilst the property is formally in the possession of the bare trust, the beneficial ownership is maintained by the SMSF. To put it plainly, this signifies that the SMSF is entitled to all the income and capital gains stemming from the property and can take over legal ownership once the loan has been paid off in full.

A crucial point to highlight is that the funds borrowed must be devoted to the procurement of either a single asset or an assortment of identical assets sharing the same market value. Moreover, the regulations associated with the LRBA dictate that the loan can be employed for the upkeep or repair of the property but not for enhancements. This differentiation is vital when orchestrating renovations and modifications to the original asset under the umbrella of an LRBA.

Renovations typically involve significant changes or upgrades to a property, and such activities might be classified as ‘improvements’. Improvements generally change the fundamental character of the property and can increase its market value. Examples include constructing an additional bedroom or installing a swimming pool. Under LRBA rules, borrowed funds cannot be used for such improvements, but must be funded directly by the SMSF’s own resources.

On the contrary, maintenance or repair work aims to stop the property from deteriorating or bring it back to a functional state without altering its core nature. Some examples include giving it a fresh coat of paint, replacing fixtures that are damaged, or fixing a broken roof. These activities can typically be financed through the LRBA.

Given the complexities of these rules, it’s recommended to seek professional advice before carrying out any significant work on a property held under an LRBA. Understanding the differences between repairs, maintenance, and improvements is crucial to ensure the SMSF stays compliant with the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act and Regulations.

Final Thoughts

Investing your SMSF in property presents a complex yet potentially rewarding endeavour. Navigating the intricacies of SMSFs, LRBAs, and property selection requires careful consideration and often, professional advice. Remember, the aim is to secure your financial future, with each decision ideally contributing to a comfortable retirement. Success hinges on understanding the rules, acknowledging the risks, and prioritising income and capital growth over personal preferences.

General Advice Warning

Gareth Lane

Concise Digital

Gareth Lane is a successful entrepreneur, businessman, and owner of the digital marketing and web agency Concise Digital, based out of Perth, Western Australia. Concise Digital have solved over 60,000 digital / web problems for clients since 2005. Gareth is one of the founders of SMSF Mate.

Gareth is passionate about helping small businesses be more successful online by avoiding the pitfalls of digital marketing. He regularly runs live talks, workshops and meetups discussing Google, social media and all things digital marketing.

Gareth studied Business and Commerce at Curtin University, and has held board positions for a number of organisations, including serving as the President of the Western Suburbs Business Association and as a non-executive member of WA Business Assist. A true entrepreneur at heart, he started his first business at 13 and has created and run multiple successful businesses since.

Gareth enjoys good food, great wine and time in the sun when he’s not at his computer helping other businesses get ahead!

You can find out more about Gareth or connect with him on Linkedin here:

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