If you want to be an investment maverick with your nest egg, there are places that can help you -- but you should be well aware of the risks before jumping in.

As the credit crisis has made borrowing more difficult and expensive, some firms are using the large, untapped pool of retirement funds to finance everything from real estate and start-up companies to hedge funds, royalty rights and auto loans.

These niche players promise investors a way to boost returns in a down market and take over the reins of their retirement funds with self-directed, unconventional investments. Participants can use retirement cash to gain a stake in all sorts of assets, as well as a host of exotic investment devices.

Guidant Financial Group research indicates that such investments are rapidly gaining popularity. The company, which has over 5,000 clients and oversees $1.1 billion in assets, found that private loans from individual retirement accounts (IRAs) have grown 131% since 2005. Guidant attributes that surge to the current credit environment.

"People are losing their homes and are unable to refinance through traditional mortgages," says CEO and Co-founder David Nilssen. "Self-directed IRA investors ... are taking advantage of the current economy to the benefit of their retirement savings."

The Entrust Group, a Reno, Nev.-based outlet that bills itself as the largest administrator of nontraditional retirement plans, oversees $3 billion in assets, which have more than doubled over the past five years. CEO Hugh Bromma says his 50,000 clients are drawn to the plans because of the control and the array of investment options.

"The history that they've had recently

with traditional investments is not favorable to their own interest," he adds. "They're more trusting of their own capabilities. They're really saying, 'No one else is doing it better than I can myself.'"

Before the current economic downturn, Entrust clients were posting 16% returns on their holdings -- much of which was related to the real estate boom. Bromma says "that's not holding true now," although he says he can't provide an estimate of current performance. Nonetheless, the firm has not experienced any headwinds on client and asset growth rates, he says.

Such investments may appeal to those who don't want to watch their retirement funds languish in "boring" stocks, bonds and CDs with minimal or negative returns. Still, it's important to consider the risks involved -- many of which have created the current economic downturn -- as well as the tax and legal implications.

Joel Larsen, a financial planner with Navigator Financial Advisors, does not advise on these kind of investments because of their complexity and risk. He refers those clients elsewhere.

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"Some people just like them because it's outside the mainstream and they're mavericks," he says. "This is not for the average person. This is for a person with specialized knowledge in a specialized situation."

Bromma agrees with that view, saying that clients must "have an investment in mind, and do the due diligence ...

because it can't and won't be done by the broker." He notes, however, that his firm handles the tax and legal questions clients may encounter.

Entrust does not charge commission, but an annual fee of $250 for each investment it services, along with $95 for each transaction.

Investors should also beware of "calls" in an agreement, which allow companies or partnerships to demand additional money under certain circumstances. Any investments they make must be attached to "disqualified persons" -- meaning the business or asset can't be self-owned or owned by a spouse, direct descendant, investment advisor or anyone who provides services to the retirement fund.

Investing in certain types of businesses can also turn an IRA into a taxable asset due to "unrelated business taxable income" rules.

Michael Eisenberg, an accountant and personal financial specialist with Eisenberg Financial Advisors, says the regulations are so complex that he has a hard time advising clients on them.

"I've seen it happen; I've had clients that I've seen it happen to and it is something that people need to be aware of," he says. "If you don't know all of the ins and outs of your investment, there are possibly surprises down the road."

Some investors are approaching retirement and are worried that they haven't socked enough cash away. But instead of chasing higher returns, Eisenberg suggests they cut back on spending or work longer than they initially planned.

C. Frederick Reish, an employee-benefits attorney with Los Angeles-based Reish Luftman Reicher & Cohen, says even millionaires should not put more than 5% to 10% of their liquid assets into nontraditional holdings. Investors can get burned if they jump in without fully understanding the complex laws, tax rules and risks, he says.

"How many people have been burned in the hands of hedge funds and private-equity funds?" he says. "People work their whole lives to build up enough money to have financial security, and then they take risk with something they don't fully understand to get a few extra percent of return. It's just not worth it."

Larsen, the financial adviser, says nontraditional investments may be right for someone who is very knowledgeable about a particular asset class or investment vehicle and its financial implications. Otherwise, the investor must be able to pay thousands of dollars in fees for asset management and consultations. Choosing one's own risky investments also requires a sharp instinct and a lot of faith.

"They're not all bad news," he says. "They're just more than most people want to get involved in."