Superannuation

Five strategies for SMSFs investing in geared property

Andrew Sadauskas /

feature-investing-geared-five-200SME owners should now have more confidence about arranging for their self-managed super funds to borrow to acquire their business premises and other investment properties – provided the assets measure up as quality investments.

This follows the recent release of a self-managed super fund final ruling providing a detailed explanation of the ATO’s interpretation of the SMSF borrowing rules in relation to the purchase, maintenance and improvement of geared assets.

Undoubtedly, many SME owners have been reluctant to gear an SMSF to acquire their business premises because of uncertainty about how the ATO, as regulator of self-managed super, may interpret the borrowing provisions in superannuation law.

The uncertainty – which largely arose after the tightening of the SMSF borrowing laws several years ago – mostly related to repairs and improvements to geared property, as well as the gearing of properties involving more than one title.

Countless SME owners have long favoured holding their business premises in their family self-managed funds. But it is understood that doubt about the ATO’s interpretation of the SMSF borrowing laws has deterred some from proceeding with the strategy.

Business real estate – such as the premises of a family SME – is among the few types of assets that SMSFs are permitted to acquire from their members and other related parties. Further, business real estate is one of the few types of assets that funds can lease to related parties – including fund members and their businesses – without a limit on its value.

SMSF trustees in general are likely to feel more comfortable about borrowing to invest in residential and commercial property now that the ATO has issued this final ruling.

While the final ruling largely confirms the main points made in a draft ruling issued in September last year, there are some significant clarifications and additional examples.

Here are five strategies for SMSFs that are considering gearing to buy property:

1. Don’t waste time on an unnecessary clash with ATO

The final ruling provides wide perimeters for SMSFs wanting to buy, maintain and improve a geared property without breaching the borrowing laws or upsetting the regulator.

In short, this gives SMSFs a solid base to work within without having a costly and time-wasting dispute with the regulator.

Meg Heffron, co-principal of SMSF administration group Heffron, won’t go as far as saying that the final ruling provides a definite rule book for SMSFs with geared property – “but we are probably a lot closer to it than we have ever been”.

As Heffron says, circumstances will inevitably arise with geared SMSF properties that are not covered in the final ruling.

2. Borrow to invest with more confidence

This is because the final ruling confirms that the regulator will provide SMSFs with a fair degree of freedom within the borrowing laws when carrying out repairs and improvements to geared property.

Heffron is convinced that the ruling will give SMSFs more confidence about borrowing to invest in property.

This marks quite a turnaround for the prospects of holding geared property in SMSFs.

Almost two years ago, amendments to superannuation law toughened the laws about borrowing to invest through a SMSF. After July 7, 2010, an SMSF could:

  • Only acquire a single asset – not multiple assets – under a borrowing arrangement.
  • Could only drawdown on a loan (entered into after July 7, 2010) to make repairs, not improvements to a geared property.
  • Could not make a capital improvement to a geared asset that was extensive enough to have created a new or replacement asset.

Heffron says her “gut reaction” to the ATO’s initial views on these amendments were that it would be almost impossible for an SMSF to borrow to buy property. And she had regarded the ATO’s interpretation at the time as “a ban by stealth” on future gearing of property in an SMSF.

But the release of the final ruling together with its earlier draft has confirmed how ATO has taken a much more pragmatic and much less restrictive approach.

It is taking a more realistic attitude about what is a geared single asset, the difference between repairs and improvements, and about the extent of improvements will lead to a new asset being created.

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Andrew Sadauskas

Andrew Sadauskas is a former journalist at SmartCompany and a former editor of TechCompany.

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