Avoid the pitfalls: A guide to property investment with an SMSF

Property is an increasingly popular investment class for SMSFs. Like all investment options, this choice has its own pros and cons.

While property is a popular asset class in which to invest for many using a self-managed super fund (SMSF) – led in no small part by the appeal of ‘bricks and mortar’ as a physical asset – it is not quite as simple as buy, set and forget. It is crucial investors seeking to realise investment returns from this asset class do so lawfully and effectively by first weighing up the benefits and drawbacks.

Property investment with an SMSF

Property as an investment

One of the key advantages of owning an SMSF is the ability to use funds to invest in real estate. Property investment has for decades been a key driver of wealth in Australia, and is another plank for developing a diversified investment portfolio. Furthermore, property is viewed by many as a relatively safe investment option, given that it is a physical asset that will always be in demand and it tends to be a much less volatile asset class than shares, for example.

Unlike some types of investment, property has the potential to provide two sources of revenue to drive growth in your retirement savings. Rental returns can provide an ongoing source of cash flow, and can be used to fund other investment purchases, while negatively geared properties allow for tax breaks across the SMSF’s earnings.

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The second revenue stream is from realising capital growth in the property once it is sold. While still subject to tax, properties held long-term by an SMSF can yield hefty returns that may not be matched by other investment classes.

Restrictions on investment

There are specific regulations in place for the purchase of property with an SMSF. ASIC's MoneySmart has a comprehensive guide to property investment restrictions. The majority of these restrictions relate to occupation for residential properties. As with all superannuation-funded investments, properties can only be used for purposes of investment. SMSF-owned residences cannot, for instance, be occupied or rented by any of the SMSF’s trustees or parties relating to them, nor can a property established as a holiday home be used by any trustee or family member.

However, these occupation restrictions are largely unique to residential properties. Commercial properties are treated differently, and can in fact be owned by an SMSF and tenanted to a business operated by a trustee or family member. As such, there are decisions of not just whether to invest in property, but which type of property to examine.

Property investment with an SMSF

Funding property acquisition

How you fund the property will depend on how much your SMSF has available to invest. If there is enough cash available, the fund can purchase the property outright. Things are less straightforward when a loan is required to fund part of the property.

Unlike the purchase of an owner-occupied property with the help of a mortgage, using an SMSF to fund a property acquisition requires a particular loan agreement known as a limited recourse borrowing arrangement. This facility places certain restrictions on the use of borrowed funds, such as that loans can only be used to purchase and maintain a property and not to carry out improvements.

Additionally, ASIC points out that tax offsets can only be used against the fund’s earnings, not your own personal income, and that enough cash needs to be available within the fund to service loan repayments and ongoing property maintenance expenses.

While there are many benefits to using an SMSF to invest in property, care must be given to adhering to the strict regulations in place in order to ensure the investment endures. Be sure to investigate all types of property in which to invest in order to achieve the best returns for your superannuation.

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"The highlight in owning property within a self-managed super fund is that we’re one step closer to our long-term goal."
- Catriona, NSW
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