Is 401(k) money better spent on the housing market?

For those who aren't satisfied being part of the "set it and forget it" retirement investment crowd - or have been put off by low and slow returns since the 2008 financial crisis - some alternative 401(k) strategies are starting to look good.

But is the idea of divesting one's 401(k) or IRA funds to purchase property a good idea?

Bloomberg reports that the investment strategy - long a notion among private equity firms - might pay off for some careful and perhaps overly impatient individual investors, though they need to be careful.

Especially if their real estate savvy is only as good as their individual retirement investment planning. 

An Indiana couple used a loan from their 401(k) to purchase a neighborhood house that had gone into foreclosure and was listed at $27,000, about a third the price of the surrounding homes. Their rental now generates $900 a month and will make a 20 percent annual return.

Across the country, there are signs that the real estate market is at long last improving - home prices were up 4.6 percent in August from the same period last year - and more investors say they are more willing to put their money into property than into the stock market. Even with a strong comeback underway in all the important indices.

"I'd rather buy real estate than gamble on the stock market or get almost no return from putting my money in a bank," said Barton Wallace of Hingham, Mass. "I don't have any problem getting tenants."

Despite the attraction of monthly income, experts warn that investors face more complexities as they move their more easily managed retirement savings into a complex holding like rental real estate.

The "sweat equity" built into repairs and maintenance of properties - hidden costs which can be even higher when dealing with the problems common in oft-neglected foreclosures - can significantly eat into profits.

And achieving the right kind of yields to show real profits is an even more complex computation, meaning that the easy money promised by real estate may not be so easy.

Those who've been successful at the strategy say it beats the virtually non-existent returns on bank accounts and the uncertainty of market fluctuations.

"People want the safety of having a tangible asset," said Indianapolis resident Gary Hippensteel, who owns six properties there. "While it's still subject to volatility in the overall economy, you at least have an asset that people will need, because if they can't buy a house they are going to rent."

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