About this article
In this final instalment on the options opened up to investors following the introduction of revolutionary new pension flexibilities, we focus squarely on an investment close to the hearts of many Britons – property.
Bricks and mortar has long been a favoured asset class of UK investors. After all, the post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation enjoyed decades of rising property prices which, alongside valuable guaranteed defined benefit pensions, helped cushion a cosy retirement for many. And from April this year savers aged 55 and over in defined contribution schemes were handed the keys to their pension safe, potentially allowing them to unlock billions of pounds of cash to spend – or invest – as they see fit.
So should investors use their new found pensions freedom to back property again? What are the options? What are the tax charges? And what are the positives and drawbacks of putting some or all of your retirement nest egg in bricks and mortar?
Property within a pension
While the reforms introduced in April allow you to strip out your retirement savings to invest or spend, there are options for those who would rather leave the money within the pension tax wrapper. “When it comes to pensions, property generally means commercial property – retail unit, offices and factories,” says Aviva head of pensions John Lawson.
“Your savings are used to buy properties such as these, which are then let out to companies who pay rental income.”
Investors who want exposure to property through their pension can use a Self Invested Personal Pension (Sipp). A number of providers offer these, including Hargreaves Lansdown, Suffolk Life and James Hay. Investors considering this route should consult with their financial adviser before picking a provider as different Sipp firms offer different levels of flexibility and will charge different amounts.
So what choices do people have for investing for retirement through their pension?
“Like other asset classes, it is possible to invest a pension fund in a specific commercial property, although the property must be let on commercial terms,” Lawson says. “For example, you can’t allow your own business to use the property to pay little or no rent.
“And, like other single direct investments, the big risk of investing in a single commercial property is that you are exposed to the fortunes of that one asset.
“For example, it may be difficult to find another tenant if a lease isn’t renewed, and difficult to sell if you need to turn your savings into cash.”
Alternatively, it is possible to invest in property through collective funds, which in turn invest in a large number of different types of commercial property, reducing risk through diversification. “But even with property funds, you may not be able to withdraw your savings as cash immediately if market conditions become difficult,” warns Lawson.
“Like individual property investments, investment managers may be unable to sell properties to meet demand from investors for cash, resulting in the fund being closed to withdrawals for a period.” Investing in individual residential properties is technically possible within a pension but comes with high tax charges. As a result, most providers simply don’t allow this type of investment.
Property outside of your pension
As a consequence of the tax charges mentioned above, the only realistic way to use pension savings to invest in residential property is to take the money out.
But pension income is also taxed in the same way as earned income (although 25% of your pot is available tax free), so if someone is still earning and is close to the higher rate tax band, for example, cashing in some or all of their pension could result in a hefty tax bill.
Martin Bamford, managing director at independent financial advice firm Informed Choice, explains: “You’re moving the money from a tax-free environment into a taxable environment; a taxable environment which was made slightly harsher in summer Budget with the gradual removal of higher rate relief on mortgage interest and changes to the wear and tear allowances.
“When you die, the value of the property will fall into your estate, whereas pensions have become very inheritance tax efficient since April.”
Patrick Connolly, an adviser at Chase de Vere, adds: “You will be moving your money outside of a tax efficient wrapper where it will currently benefit from tax efficient growth, no capital gains tax liability and where the money will be outside of your estate for inheritance tax purposes.
“None of these benefits apply if you take the money out and purchase a buy-to-let property.”
Investors should also consider whether their pension is large enough to buy a property – particularly if the pot they are accessing is their only source of retirement income.
Connolly says: “For most people using their pension fund to purchase a buy-to-let property isn’t a sensible or tax efficient option. If they have a large pension fund, enough to buy a property, and withdraw this in one go then they are likely to be hit with a hefty tax bill because after the first 25%, the remainder of their pension withdrawals will be taxed at their marginal rate of income tax. “So, for an investor with a pension fund of £150,000, they could make a tax free withdrawal of £37,500.
Assuming that the remaining £112,500 is all taxed at 40% they would face a tax liability of £45,000, reducing the amount they would receive from their pension to just £105,000. They would also lose their annual income tax allowance of £10,600, further increasing their tax bill.”
Much of this will depend, of course, on the price of the property you are looking to invest in. People with large pensions looking to invest in residential property in less expensive areas, such as Yorkshire or the North East, may well be able to use their tax-free lump sum to buy a property below the stamp duty threshold of £125,000.