A self-directed IRA custodian or facilitator gives you the freedom to direct your own investments in stocks and bonds as well as alternative assets like real estate, private equity, and precious metals. We evaluated dozens of self-directed IRA companies on investment options, fees, and customer service and narrowed the list down to the best eight providers.
Best Self-Directed IRA Custodians & Companies 2018
|Entrust Group||(Best Overall) Investors who want an easy-to-use, cost-effective account for certain pre-screened alternative assets.|
|uDirect IRA Services||Investors who want help setting up a self-directed checkbook IRA for real estate investments.|
|Charles Schwab||Investors who want to direct their own investments but also have access to other banking and advisory services.|
|Equity Trust||Investors who may need one-on-one assistance and want to work with an established self-directed IRA companies.|
|IRA Financial||Self-directed IRA facilitator for checkbook control for non-real estate investments.|
|PENSCO||Investors who want a self-directed IRA custodian to help with overseas real estate investments.|
|Merrill Edge||Investing in stocks, bonds, and ETFs through an online platform without an advisor.|
|TD Ameritrade||Investors who want to trade stocks, bonds, and other investments within a 401(k) plan.|
We’ve tried to confine our list to self-directed IRA custodians, but some of the best and most established self-directed IRA providers are not structured as custodians. Instead, most rely on third-party custodians to provide back-office services for clients. We’ve included notes below for those companies that do not directly handle custody assets for self-directed IRAs but can nevertheless help clients to invest in a range of alternative assets.
How We Evaluated the Best Self-Directed IRA Companies
We conducted self-directed IRA custodian reviews to identify providers that are the best for different types of investments. Fees and customer service also vary among providers—some self-directed IRA companies offer checkbook IRAs, while others only provide access to certain alternative assets. It’s important to choose a provider that suits your investment strategy and goals.
We conducted self-directed IRA custodians reviews based on several factors, including:
- Investment Options – What alternative investments a provider offers access to or specializes in
- Checkbook Control – If IRA clients can invest in anything just by writing a check
- Fees – The setup, administration, and transactional costs charged by a provider
- Ease of Account Setup & Maintenance – How easy it is to set up and administer an account with a custodian
- Customer Service – The helpfulness of a self-directed IRA company in providing guidance and assisting with account issues
- Account Availability – The process for opening an account and how quickly you can get an account established
Investors are legally allowed to hold all kinds of assets in retirement accounts. In fact, there are very few assets that you aren’t allowed to hold. Most investors are limited by the investments made available to them by their IRA custodian. Self-directed IRA companies help investors to broaden their options to invest in many more types of assets than just stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. Self-directed IRA custodians, however, can’t offer checkbook control for clients—only facilitators do that.
After evaluating more than a dozen of the most established self-directed IRA companies, we chose Entrust Group as the best overall self-directed IRA company. Entrust is a very established and reputable company that offers investors access to a wide array of alternative investments, as well as a team of advisors who can assist with account formation and maintenance.
Tips for Choosing a Self-Directed IRA Provider
When choose a self directed IRA custodian, FINRA offers the following guidance:
“Make sure you do your own due diligence. You have to make sure you’re setting up your self-directed IRA with an IRS-approved institution. All IRAs enjoy certain tax advantages, but only if they’re held by an IRS-approved institution. The IRS provides a list of approved IRA custodians that you can reference to make sure your potential provider is approved. An IRA custodian is a facilitator for an account. They aren’t like a broker/dealer or investment advisor – they don’t do any kind of inspections of potential investments or make recommendations, nor are they doing any due diligence, evaluations, or valuations. Unlike other investment providers, account statements from a self-directed IRA custodian may only indicate what investments you own and what you paid. You are responsible for being aware of the changing value of investments and making decisions on what to hold and when to sell.” – Gerri Walsh, Senior Vice President for Investor Education, FINRA
The head of Retirement Industry Trust Association had this advice for using a self-directed IRA:
“Setting up a self-directed IRA that allows for investment in alternative assets is generally no different than setting up an IRA with a bank or broker-dealer that allows investment only in traditional assets, and most custodians allow you to open an account over the Internet. In terms of administering the account, the custodian will take care of accounting, and reporting to the customer and the government as required, however, the IRA owner is responsible for choosing investments and directing the custodian’s actions. The customer should be aware that certain assets, like real estate, require him or her to stay involved in order to maintain the investment. In general, the owner of a self-directed IRA that invests in alternative assets will be more involved in the management of his or her account than someone invested in traditional assets, such as a CD or a mix of stocks and mutual funds.” -Tom Anderson, President, Retirement Industry Trust Association
Best Overall Self-Directed IRA Company: Entrust Group
Entrust Group is our best overall self-directed IRA company because they’re a very well-established provider that has been around for more than 36 years and administers over $3 billion in retirement assets. They are a very well-respected self-directed IRA custodian and include only pre-vetted investments through their platform.
Entrust Group Investment Options
A self-directed IRA through Entrust Group provides many investment options, including:
- Real Estate – You can hold real property in your self-directed IRA
- Private Equity – LLCs and other private companies
- Precious Metals – Gold, silver, platinum, and palladium bars, coins, and rounds
- Oil & Gas – Energy production and development companies
- Mortgage Notes – Private loans, both secured and unsecured
Entrust offers access to a number of alternative investments but does not provide clients with checkbook control to offer increased investment flexibility. While Entrust does not offer checkbook IRAs, it does offer resources to help clients set it up on their own.
Entrust Group Self-Directed IRA Costs
Entrust charges reasonable fees compared to other self-directed IRA companies. There’s a small account setup fee that’s waived for investments in precious metals. Entrust also charges administration fees based either on the number of investments or size of an account. There are also transactional fees, some of which are waived for precious metals.
The costs for a self-directed IRA with Entrust include the following:
- Account Setup Fee ($50) – This fee is charged up front but is waived if you’re investing in precious metals
- Annual Administration Fee ($199 – $1,995) – Entrust charges fees based either on the number of investments or size of your account; fees are lower if you invest in precious metals
- Transaction Fees ($0 – $250) – Entrust charges fees any time you buy, sell, or exchange an investment in your self-directed IRA, with fees varying by investment type
Entrust Account Features
You can open an account with Entrust through their website and handle account maintenance completely online. When you open an account with Entrust as your facilitator, The Entrust Trust Company serves as your self-directed IRA custodian and holds all investments on your behalf. Entrust also handles record keeping, providing regular reports of what’s in your account.
In addition to account administration and record keeping, Entrust Group provides additional services including:
- Investment Platform – While Entrust doesn’t offer specific investment guidance, they make it easy to invest in private placements and other alternative assets using their proprietary investment platform.
- Educational Tools – Entrust offers a suite of investor education tools to help investors better understand self-directed IRAs and make informed investment decisions.
- eMoney Advisor – If you have other investments, you can use the eMoney advisor to aggregate your investments with Entrust as part of your overall portfolio.
Entrust Group Customer Service
In addition to their team of in-house professionals, Entrust regularly partners with other investment professionals to provide self-directed IRAs as a part of their client’s overall investment strategy. This means that you can work with Entrust directly or through some independent financial firms if you already have an advisor.
What’s Missing with Entrust Group
Entrust provides easy access to a host of standard alternative investments. However, this self-directed IRA company doesn’t offer clients checkbook IRAs but can help clients to set up their self-directed IRA for checkbook control. Entrust also doesn’t provide individual investment advice to clients.
Entrust Group Customer Reviews
Despite being such a well-established company, Entrust Group doesn’t have many reviews. However, there are minimal complaints against Entrust through the Better Business Bureau, and the company has a generally positive reputation among independent self-directed IRA custodian reviews. For more information on public perception of Entrust, be sure to check out our Entrust Group Review.
How to Apply with Entrust Group
To open an account with Entrust, visit their website. You can get more information on their offerings or open and fund an account in as little as ten minutes. Once you’ve established an account, you can decide whether you want to take steps on your own to establish a checkbook IRA or if you want to invest through Entrust’s platform.
Best Self-Directed Checkbook IRA for Real Estate Investments: uDirect IRA Services
Since it was started, the primary focus of uDirect IRA Services has been helping clients to invest in real estate. uDirect has expanded its offerings to include checkbook IRA and, based on self-directed IRA company reviews, uDirect remains an ideal self-directed IRA company for using a self-directed IRA to invest in real estate.
uDirect IRA Services Investment Options
Investment options available with a uDirect checkbook IRA include:
- Real Estate – Apartments, single family homes, commercial properties, and raw land
- REITs – Real Estate Investment Trusts that own many properties
- Real Estate Notes – Mortgages and deeds of trust
- Private Loans – These include promissory notes, private loans, car loans, accounts receivable financing, and equipment leasing
- Private Companies – Limited partnerships, limited liability companies, and C corporations
- Tax Lien Certificates – Buy tax liens against property whose owners haven’t paid taxes
- Commodities – Including oil and gas investments
- Judgments – Purchase the rights to legal judgments and structured settlements
- Precious metals – Including gold and silver bullion
With a checkbook IRA through uDirect, you can invest in anything allowed by the IRS. However, uDirect remains best specifically for real estate. Checkbook control gives you the ability to move quickly if you want to buy tax lien certificates or real estate at auction—investments that require quick access to cash.
uDirect Self-Directed IRA Costs
Self-directed IRA costs through uDirect include:
- Account Setup Fee ($50) – uDirect charges an upfront fee to establish your account
- Annual Account Fee ($275) – Account holders are charged a fee every year for record keeping and reporting services
- Transaction Fee ($35) – Every new account gets six free transactions, after which investors pay any time they buy, sell, or exchange an investment
- Storage Fees ($8 – $18 per month) – Clients who invest in precious metals or currencies pay a monthly storage fee that varies by type of asset and amount held
Fees for a checkbook IRA through uDirect are relatively minimal. The company charges a small setup fee plus annual fees. Investors also pay a fee any time they buy, sell, or exchange an investment in their account. There are also additional fees for storing precious metals and currencies.
uDirect Account Features
Account setup and maintenance can be handled mostly online through the uDirect website. However, you may need to occasionally print and sign some forms, which can then be scanned and uploaded. In addition to checkbook IRAs, uDirect also offers self-directed 401(k)s and other flexible investment plans for clients.
uDirect Customer Service
uDirect is a newer company that has not yet developed a huge customer base or encountered a lot of reviews. The company is smaller but is extremely helpful in guiding new clients through the process of setting up and investing through their account. For more information, be sure to check out our uDirect self-directed IRA custodian review.
In addition to direct customer service, uDirect also offers services including:
- Investor Education – Resources on how to use your self-directed IRA
- Investment Guides – Information for investing in particular sectors through your account
- Online Document Upload – Some account maintenance issues through uDirect require signed copies of forms, which can be uploaded through uDirect’s website for quick processing
What’s Missing with uDirect IRA Services
uDirect has one of the best self-directed IRA custodian reviews for investing in real estate. However, the company is not actually a self-directed IRA custodian but rather a facilitator to help set up self-directed IRAs. uDirect uses American Estate and Trust as custodian for client accounts.
As a firm, uDirect is also smaller and does not have a huge team to offer individual guidance. The process for submitting paperwork can also be cumbersome, with forms needing to be printed, signed, scanned, and uploaded through their website.
uDirect Services Customer Reviews
uDirect doesn’t have a lot of reviews yet, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a newer company that was started mostly to help with niche real estate investments. However, the company has glowing independent reviews on Trustlink and an A+ rating from the BBB.
How to Apply with uDirect IRA Services
To learn more about investment options and the advantages of using uDirect, visit their website. You can learn more about the account opening and administration process as well as various investment strategies for your IRA and the process for investing funds quickly. If you decide to open an account, you can begin the process directly through the uDirect website.
Best Self-Directed IRA Custodian with Additional Banking Services: Charles Schwab
Charles Schwab is one of the largest diversified financial services companies in the world. They offer everything from retail banking to stock and bond trading, and from personal investment advice to online accounts that you can trade yourself. If you want to direct your own investments and have access to a host of banking and other financial services, Schwab is a self-directed IRA custodian to consider.
Charles Schwab Investment Options
Schwab self-directed IRA investment options include:
- Stocks – Shares in individual companies in the U.S. or around the world
- Bonds – Debt issued by individual companies and countries
- Mutual Funds – Schwab offers their own line of commission-free mutual funds in addition to thousands of additional funds through their trading platform
- Target Date Funds – Schwab offers access to funds that shift from stocks to bonds as a target retirement date approaches—including their own line of funds
- ETFs – Schwab also offers many commission-free ETFs that are similar to mutual funds but trade like stocks, in addition to funds from third-party providers
Charles Schwab doesn’t offer checkbook IRAs because they’re a custodian. Schwab accounts can be self-directed because they let investors make their own investment decisions instead of working with an advisor and because an account with Schwab allows more investment options than are available in most 401(k)s and other employer-sponsored retirement plans.
Charles Schwab Self-Directed IRA Costs
Some costs of a Schwab self-directed IRA include:
- Account Minimum: $25,000
- Trading Commissions: $4.95+ per trade – Any time you buy, sell, or trade in your Schwab account, you’ll be charged a commission
- No Commissions on Schwab ETFs – While Schwab charges commissions for most trades, they do offer investors access to a proprietary line of commission-free mutual funds and ETFs
- Fund Expense Ratios: 0.1% – 1.5% – Any mutual funds or ETFs that you buy through Schwab (even commission-free funds) charge expense ratios to cover the costs of trading and management for the fund
Unlike many self-directed IRA custodians, Charles Schwab doesn’t charge monthly or annual account fees. Instead, their fee model is focused on commissions for trades in your account, plus advisor fees if you decide to enlist the help of an investment advisor. There are also additional costs for other services, including business banking and lending.
Charles Schwab Account Features
Some additional features available from Schwab include:
- Retail and Business Banking – In addition to securities brokerage and investment management, Schwab is a fully-licensed bank that can provide checking and savings accounts, cash management, and a host of other banking services.
- Lending – Schwab can arrange loans for clients who qualify.
- Investment Advisory Services – If you want help creating or executing an individual investment strategy, Schwab can pair you up with an advisor to give you individual guidance.
Charles Schwab Customer Service
Among large national providers, Schwab has a reputation for providing reliable customer service. They have offices in many cities across the country where you can get in-person assistance as necessary—far more than most self-directed IRA custodians on this list. However, you can also resolve most account issues online or over the phone.
What’s Missing with Charles Schwab
Schwab is a great provider of IRAs if you want to direct your own investments without the help of an advisor. However, they do not offer access to many of the alternative investments like real estate, oil and gas, or precious metals, which most people look for in self-directed IRAs. Schwab’s commission-based fee structure can also get expensive if you do a lot of trading in your account.
Charles Schwab Customer Reviews
Charles Schwab has generally positive self-directed IRA custodian reviews. People appreciate the transparency and lack of monthly fees and prefer only paying commissions when they trade in their account. There have been a few bad reviews online, but these are mostly related to the retail banking side of the business or isolated incidents.
How to Apply with Charles Schwab
To set up a self-directed IRA with Schwab, start by visiting their website. Through Schwab’s website, you can download an account application to complete and submit via mail. Opening your account can take seven to ten business days and when you submit your account application, you’ll need to fund your account with at least $25,000.
Best Self-Directed IRA Company with Personal Advisors: Equity Trust
Equity Trust has a team of more than 400 specialists who can help individual clients vet investments and resolve individual account issues. This network is far larger than other self-directed IRA companies and makes Equity Trust ideal if you want one-on-one assistance. Equity Trust is also one of the most established self-directed IRA companies, with more than 30 years of experience and over $25 billion in assets under management.
Equity Trust Investment Options
Equity Trust gives self-directed IRA custodian clients access to investment options including:
- Real Estate – Land, residential or commercial properties, mobile homes, and foreign properties
- Tax Lien Certificates – Tax liens on real estate or personal property if owners have failed to pay the taxes
- Private Loans – Private loans, including mortgages issued directly from your account
- Private Placements – Private companies including LLCs and C-Corps (the IRS does not allow IRA investments in General Partnerships or S-Corps)
- Precious Metals – Gold, silver, and platinum
- Currencies – Buying and selling foreign exchange currencies through a platform
Equity Trust Self-Directed IRA Costs
The costs of a self-directed IRA with Equity Trust include:
- Account Setup Fee ($50) – A flat fee charged to open an account
- Annual Administration Fee ($205 – $2,150) – Annual fees are paid the first quarter each year and vary depending on the size of your account
- Transaction Fees – None
Equity Trust is another cost-efficient, self-directed IRA company for investors. Although the company charges a small setup fee and annual account fees, there are no fees for transactions unless special handling is necessary. While brokerage commissions still apply, Equity Trust can be a great provider if you anticipate more than one or two transactions in your account each year.
Equity Trust Account Features
Accounts with Equity Trust can be established and administered entirely online. You also get access Equity’s team of more than 400 specialists who can assist with any account issues or questions. However, the company is only an account custodian—they do not provide any investment advice.
Equity Trust Customer Service
Among our self-directed IRA custodian reviews, Equity Trust has a very strong reputation for customer service from the BBB and independent reviews. The company offers great tools through their website to provide additional information on self-directed IRAs and investment options. Investors also get access to over 400 specialists who can answer questions or address account issues.
What’s Missing with Equity Trust
Equity Trust is a very well-respected self-directed IRA custodian and offers a huge team of specialists to help clients. However, the company does not provide individual investment advice to clients. It also does not provide checkbook control—you have to instead issue directions for the company to invest funds from your account.
Equity Trust Customer Reviews
Equity Trust is another very well-established self-directed IRA custodian that doesn’t have many reviews compared to its size. However, the company does has an A+ rating from the BBB and a more than 60 percent positive review rating after more than 70 independent customer reviews. For more information, be sure to check out our Equity Trust Review.
How to Apply with Equity Trust
You can set up an account with Equity Trust online through their website. If you prefer to work with a specialist or have questions about Equity Trust’s offering, you can visit their website for more information or to contact one of their 400-plus specialists to address any questions or open an account.
Another Good Self-Directed IRA Custodian for Checkbook Control: IRA Financial
IRA Financial is one of the smaller self-directed IRA custodians we evaluated. The firm was established by a team of tax law specialists and has helped clients to put more than $4.9 billion into self-directed IRAs. They specialize in helping clients who want a lot of investment options to establish checkbook IRAs for maximum flexibility.
IRA Financial Investment Options
There are tons of investment options available through IRA Financial, including:
- Real Estate – Land, rental properties, mobile homes, and developments
- Precious Metals – Gold, silver, and other precious metal coins and bars
- Private Business – Small, non-traded businesses except for S-Corps and General Partnerships
- Loans – Peer-to-peer lending and private mortgages
- Foreign Currencies – Buying and selling currencies through foreign exchange
- Options – Trading stock options and other derivatives
- Cryptocurrencies – Use a self-directed IRA to invest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies
These are just some of the investment options available. Using a checkbook IRA from IRA Financial, clients can invest in anything that’s allowed under IRS regulations.
IRA Financial Self-Directed IRA Costs
IRA Financial offers self-directed IRA accounts without checkbook control, but their checkbook IRA offering is much more cost-effective and offers far more investment options. The firm does not charge a fee to set up accounts but does have annual custodian fees that are deducted quarterly. Clients also pay transaction fees depending on the type of investment.
Some specific checkbook IRA costs through IRA Financial costs include:
- Annual Custodian Fee ($180 – $360) – Self-directed IRA clients pay an annual fee that’s cheaper with checkbook control
- Transaction Fees ($35 – $45) – Any time you buy, sell, or exchange an investment, you pay a fee that varies based on the type of asset
IRA Financial Account Features
Setting up and maintaining an account with IRA Financial is more cumbersome than with most of our self-directed IRA custodian reviews. The tax specialists who started the firm have a deep understanding of self-directed IRA rules and regulations but are less focused on technology and streamlining client offerings. The account setup process can be started through their website, but requires additional steps to complete.
IRA Financial Customer Service
IRA Financial stands behind their offerings and provides customer service online and over the phone to clients who have questions or account administration issues. The company also provides lots of educational tools online and helps clients to defend self-directed IRA investments against IRS audit, should the need arise.
IRA Financial provides additional services including:
- Investor Education – Blogs and podcasts explaining the benefits of self-directed IRAs and checkbook IRAs and how to use them
- Audit Protection – Help to defend against an IRS audit, if necessary
- Investment-Specific Guides – Material on many different types of investments available through self-directed IRAs, including real estate and precious metals
What’s Missing with IRA Financial
The team at IRA Financial is incredibly knowledgeable about IRA rules and restrictions. Though they have a good checkbook IRA offering, they lack in standard investment options. The firm’s application process is also a bit cumbersome and it’s not possible to open an account quickly through their website.
IRA Financial Customer Reviews
Out of all our self-directed IRA custodian reviews, IRA Financial is the most positive. The company has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau and just one complaint after more than 10 reviews. Overall, the reviews we’ve found for IRA Financial are extremely positive.
How to Apply with IRA Financial
To learn more about self-directed IRAs or an account with IRA Financial, start by visiting their website. Once you decide to open an account, you can begin the process directly online. Once you begin the process, a specialist at IRA Financial will contact you to finish opening your account.
Best Self-Directed IRA Custodian for Overseas Real Estate Investments: PENSCO
PENSCO is one of the largest self-directed IRA custodians with more than $16 billion in assets and 50,000 client accounts. PENSCO doesn’t offer checkbook control, but it has great investment options through numerous investing platforms. It is also one of the only providers of certain unique offerings, including foreign real estate investments.
PENSCO Investment Options
Investment options available through PENSCO include:
- Real Estate – Homes, buildings, land, and mobile home parks
- Private Equity – Stock in private companies like LLCs and C-Corps
- Promissory Notes – Private loans and mortgages
- Precious Metals – Coins and bars made from metals including gold and silver
- Bitcoin – Cryptocurrency and other blockchain investments
- Commodities – Oil and gas investments plus land and mineral rights
PENSCO offers self-directed IRA clients a wide array of investment options across multiple investment platforms, including a marketplace that helps match up alternative investment providers and investors. However, PENSCO doesn’t provide checkbook control, so you can’t just invest in something by writing a check. All transactions must flow through PENSCO.
PENSCO Self-Directed IRA Costs
Typical costs of a self-directed IRA with PENSCO include:
- Account Setup Fee ($50) – A small fee to establish your account
- Quarterly Account Administration Fee ($100 – $525 or more per quarter) – PENSCO charges quarterly account administration fees that vary based on the size of your account
- Quarterly Asset Maintenance Fee ($0 – $12 per asset) – There are no quarterly asset fees except for real estate, promissory notes, and mortgage assets held at PENSCO
- Transaction Costs – Transactions are free except for foreign real estate
- Foreign Real Estate Transactions ($1,000) – PENSCO has a dedicated fee structure for foreign real estate, charging $1,000 for any purchase or sale of foreign property
PENSCO has some of the higher fees among our self-directed IRA custodian reviews. The company charges a minimal setup fee and low transaction costs. They also charge quarterly account administration and asset maintenance fees that can be significant, especially as your account grows or if you invest in many different assets.
PENSCO Account Features
You can open and fund a self-directed IRA online through the PENSCO website portal and manage all investments online. Account maintenance can all be handled online, but PENSCO also has customer service specialists standing by to help with any questions or problems.
PENSCO Customer Service
As one of the more established self-directed IRA companies, PENSCO has a reputation for strong customer service. They also make it extremely easy for investors to manage their own accounts and investments through investment platforms. PENSCO can even help to arrange financing on real estate and other assets held in a self-directed IRA.
In addition to normal account maintenance, PENSCO provides additional services, including:
- Investment Platforms – PENSCO provides clients access to online investment platforms to help identify potential investments
- PENSCO Marketplace – Investors and alternative investment providers have access and can find one another
- Financing – PENSCO has relationships with non-recourse lenders to help set up financing that’s allowed under IRS rules
What’s Missing with PENSCO
PENSCO is one of the largest and most established self-directed IRA custodians. However, they do not offer clients checkbook control that could provide additional investment flexibility. All investments must flow through PENSCO.
PENSCO Customer Reviews
PENSCO is a very large self-directed IRA company but does not seem to have very positive reviews. The reviews we’ve found are fairly negative and customer service complaints are frequent. While PENSCO has an A+ rating from the BBB, there are very few customer reviews—mostly negative—and several complaints. For more information, read our PENSCO Review.
How to Apply with PENSCO
You can open an account with PENSCO through their website in as little as 10 minutes. You can also get more information on investment options that they offer, their online platforms, and the PENSCO Marketplace. If you decide to open an account, you can apply online, fund your account, and start investing.
Best Self-Directed IRA for Investing through a Platform: Merrill Edge
Merrill Edge is a unit of Bank of America that provides self-directed IRAs through an online platform. All accounts at Merrill Edge are held in custody by their parent company and customers are given access to many Bank of America and Merrill Lynch offerings. If you already have an account with Merrill Lynch or want a personal financial advisor to help on other accounts, consider Merrill Edge.
Merrill Edge Investment Options
Merrill Edge lets investors direct their investments among a number of options, including:
- Mutual Funds – Merrill Edge lets clients choose from a host of proprietary and third-party mutual funds
- ETFs – Merrill clients can also invest in ETFs that are structured like mutual funds but trade like stocks
- Stocks – You can trade individual stocks in your IRA
- Bonds – Buy and sell debts issued by companies and countries
- Options – You can buy and sell derivatives in your self-directed account
- Target Date Funds – Merrill Edge doesn’t have its own target date funds but offers funds from Merrill Lynch and other providers that automatically shift from stocks to bonds as the targeted retirement date draws near
Through Merrill Edge, account holders can also get access to a host of Bank of America and Merrill Lynch services and resources, including business banking, lending, and wealth management. While also accounts are custodied by Bank of America, as a self-directed IRA company Merrill Edge offers clients an easy, cost-effective way to direct their own investments.
Merrill Edge also has great introductory offers going on now, including:
- Get $100 if you deposit at least $20,000 within 45 days
- Get $150 if you deposit at least $50,000 within 45 days
- Get $250 if you deposit at least $100,000 within 45 days
- Get $600 if you deposit at least $200,000 within 45 days
These introductory offers are far higher than those offered by most self-directed IRA companies. However, these offers can’t be combined.
Merrill Edge Self-Directed IRA Costs
The typical costs for a Merrill Edge self-directed IRA include:
- No Account Minimum – There is no minimum account size for self-directed IRA investing through Merrill Edge
- Stock & ETF Trades: $6.95 per trade – Investors pay $6.95 for each trade in equities or ETFs
- Options Trades: $6.95 per trade + $0.75 per options contract – Options contracts can be traded on Merrill’s platform for an addition fee per contract
- Mutual Fund Transaction Fees: $0 – $19.95 per transaction – There are many no-commission funds, but commissions are charged for some self-directed transactions in some funds; however, these fees are disclosed before trades are processed
- Bond Trades: $0 – $1 per bond – Many bonds like Treasuries can be traded for free but even those that charge are only $1 per bond ($10 minimum, $250 max) for self-directed transactions
- Mutual Fund Expense Ratio: 0.03% – 2% annually – Mutual funds, including target date funds, charge annual expense ratios to cover the costs of trading and management
Merrill Edge isn’t the most cost-effective IRA provider, but it provides investors who want to actively trade stocks, bonds, and other securities in their self-directed IRA the ability to do so for reasonably low costs per transaction.
Merrill Edge Account Features
In addition to Merrill Edge’s trading platform and market research resources, account holders have full access to products and services from Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. Those who decide to stop directing their own investments can start working with a financial advisor at any time.
Merrill Edge Customer Service
Merrill Edge is an online platform, but clients have access to both Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, which have offices all around the world. Merrill Lynch offices and Bank of America (BofA) branches are in most communities across the country, where dedicated representatives can help resolve account issues or provide individual guidance, plus many other banking and investment services.
What’s Missing with Merrill Edge
Although a very cost-effective provider, Merrill Edge is focused most on discount brokerage services to trade listed securities. They do not offer access to many of the alternative assets that people often look for in self-directed IRAs. Also, while you can start working with a financial advisor at any time, you’ll need to meet certain account minimums to do so and additional fees will apply.
Merrill Edge Customer Reviews
Merrill Edge has excellent customer reviews and is widely recognized as a great self-directed IRA company that lets clients trade cost-efficiently in many securities online. Merrill Edge customers point out that accounts can easily be linked to Bank of America accounts and are especially beneficial for Bank of America Preferred Rewards customers. However, you don’t have to be a BofA client to use Merrill Edge.
How to Apply with Merrill Edge
To review additional information or set up a self-directed IRA with Merrill Edge, visit their website. If you prefer, you can always work through a Merrill Lynch or Merrill Edge representative to set up your account. Once your account is established, you can fund it quickly online to start directing your own investments.
Best Self-Directed Option for 401(k) Plans: TD Ameritrade
TD Ameritrade is a brokerage firm based out of Nebraska and is an IRS-approved IRA custodian. One of their best offerings, though, is providing access to self-directed options within a 401(k) plan. If you have a 401(k) plan for your small business and want to provide plan participants with the ability to self-direct all or a part of their account, be sure to look at TD Ameritrade.
TD Ameritrade Investment Options
TD Ameritrade investment options in a self-directed account include:
- Stocks – Trade in individual stocks through TD’s platform
- Bonds – Buy or trade individual bonds issued by companies and countries
- Mutual Funds – Get access to more than 13,000 mutual funds in addition to those already available through your 401(k)
- Target Date Funds – Mutual funds that adjust from stocks to safer investments as you near a target retirement year
- ETFs – Plan participants can trade in baskets of stocks through ETFs
- CDs – TD Ameritrade also offers Certificates of Deposit like those you’d find at a bank
In addition to the investment options available through your a 401(k) plan, a self-directed brokerage account from TD Ameritrade lets participants choose from a huge assortment, but at added cost. Plan participants have access to research from TD Ameritrade to help choose individual investments, but investors really need to be more knowledgeable to use this option effectively.
If you decide to open a self-directed IRA with TD Ameritrade, you can get rewards including:
- 60 days of free stock, ETF, and options trades if you deposit $3,000 or more
- $100 and 60 days of free trading if you deposit $25,000 or more
- $300 and 60 days of free trading if you deposit $100,000 or more
- $600 and 60 days of free trading if you deposit $250,000 or more
These are the highest introductory offers available from the self-directed IRA companies on our list. However, these offers can’t be combined.
TD Ameritrade Self-Directed IRA Costs
The costs for adding a TD Ameritrade self-directed option for a 401(k) include:
- Trading Commissions: $6.95 per trade – Participants pay $6.95 for U.S. stock trades and ETFs that aren’t on their commission-free list, while bonds and CDs trade on a net yield basis (so the commission is built into the price of the bond)
- Self-Directed Account Fee: $15 per month – Plan participants who use the self-directed option will pay an addition $15 monthly fee
- Plan Administration Fees: up to 1.5% per year – Plan administration and record keeping can cost as much as 1.5 percent per year, but that cost is included whether or not you add a self-directed option
- Annual Participant Fees: up to $50 per year – Plan participants pay an annual fee to have a 401(k) account with TD Ameritrade, whether or not they use the self-directed option
- Mutual fund expense ratios: 0.1% – 1.5% or more – Like other providers, mutual funds purchased through TD Ameritrade charge expense ratios that start at under 0.4 percent
In a TD Ameritrade 401(k) account, participants have access to hundreds of commission-free mutual funds and ETFs. However, by adding a self-directed brokerage option plan, sponsors can also let plan participants trade in individual stocks, bonds, and other securities for an additional fee plus trading expenses.
TD Ameritrade Account Features
A self-directed account within a TD Ameritrade 401(k) plan offers the following features:
- Lending Facility – Unlike other self-directed IRA providers on this list, using a self-directed brokerage option in a TD Ameritrade allows plan participants to borrow against their retirement assets
- Retail and Business Banking – Account holders who use TD Ameritrade for other services can access their bank accounts in the U.S. and Canada
TD Ameritrade Customer Service
TD Ameritrade has offices around the country and is known for relatively strong customer service. If you add a self-directed brokerage option onto a 401(k) plan, plan participants should already have access to a dedicated advisor as well as numerous customer support specialists to help resolve account issues. However, plan participants can also use a self-directed option to guide their own investments without the input of advisors.
What’s Missing with TD Ameritrade
While TD Ameritrade offers a lending facility that you won’t find with most self-directed IRA custodians, TD’s offering is not a full self-directed IRA. It doesn’t offer access to alternative assets like real estate and precious metals, let alone checkbook control.
TD Ameritrade Customer Reviews
TD Ameritrade has great reviews. It has an especially strong reputation for discount securities brokerage like the self-directed option available in some 401(k) plans. While retail investors have occasionally encountered account issues, these problems are far less common in 401(k) plans with self-directed options.
How to Apply With TD Ameritrade
To set up a self-directed account with TD Ameritrade, you have to start by setting up a 401(k) plan for your small business. If you already have a 401(k) plan with TD Ameritrade and want to add a self-directed brokerage option, contact your account representative to add the feature. If you need to open a plan, visit TD’s website and request a proposal.
Self-directed IRA custodians can provide substantial benefits for small business owners and their employees. Our self-directed IRA custodian reviews show the providers that are most cost-effective and provide investors the greatest investment flexibility. For more information on how self-directed IRAs work, be sure to check out our ultimate guide to Self-Directed IRAs.