I booked a removal company I found through an internet search engine. They were cheap and the representative was friendly. I Googled them at the last minute and found all sorts of dire warnings. Apparently they lure people in with cheap quotes and then refuse to unload the van until you pay more. Obviously I have cancelled, but I'm wondering how I can make sure any new company I book is legitimate?
Internet search engines are not the best way to pick reputable companies. You are handing over your most treasured possessions and you need to be sure you are dealing with someone you can trust. It is worth asking friends and relatives who have moved recently for their recommendations.
But the best way to protect yourself is to pick a company that is a member of a trade association so you have comeback if they turn out to be incompetent, or even criminal. The websites for the National Guild of Removers and Storers – www.ngrs.co.uk – and the British Association of Removers – www.bar.co.uk – list their members. NGRS members are also in the Removals Industry Ombudsman Scheme, which offers last-resort dispute resolution between removal companies and their clients.
"In addition, all of our members have to be individually inspected annually," says Geoff Davis of the NGRS. "This covers their financial standing, insurance, premises, vehicles, trading standards convictions and customer satisfaction levels. We have an ongoing member quality monitoring programme and all members sign up to a code of practice. We can terminate a membership at any time."
Online scams have become a problem for the industry. The guild's logo is often misappropriated, warns Mr Davis, so consumers should check the NGRS site rather than rely on what companies claim.
I have three pension schemes from current and past employers. One contains the old State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (Serps), one is the remnant of a personal pension plan that is now frozen, and the current one is with my existing employer. The frozen personal pension is invested in a Standard Life with-profits fund; the old Serps one is invested in a Scottish Widows personal pension scheme, which is stock-market based, and my employer's scheme is supposedly "lifestyle" based, but in reality is also largely stock-market driven. Should I retain the with-profits policy for the personal scheme, which is worth about £64,000 and has a guaranteed 4 per cent annual return? I thought it might be a good idea to spread my pension investments so that not all of it is in the stock market. I am 49 years old and hope to retire at 60. I have been told that, even in these horrible times, stock-market based schemes are OK as the market can rise as rapidly as it has fallen.
Historically, this is true, which is why many advisers stress the importance of staying invested in stock markets. Over the long term, this has tended to be a more profitable strategy than trying to dip in and out. Eleven years is a long time in stock markets and, despite their volatility, shares have historically provided better returns than bonds and savings accounts.
That said, it is sensible to re-examine your investments. I asked Bruce Wilson, managing director at financial planning group Helm Godfrey, for his view. He says that with-profits funds are designed to offer a smoothed return over time by investing in a range of assets, including shares, fixed bonds, property and deposit savings.
They pay bonuses each year (and on maturity), keeping back some of the returns in good periods so as to balance out bad periods. "The Standard Life fund offers a guaranteed bonus of 4 per cent a year. This means that most of the assets will be in bonds and deposit savings so as to ensure the returns are sufficient to meet the guaranteed bonus. This, coupled with the smoothing, means that bonus rates are unlikely to be much in excess of 4 per cent even when equity returns are good."
Mr Wilson believes that whether you move your pension should depend upon your attitude to risk – are you willing to give up the 4 per cent guaranteed return for the opportunity of achieving better returns, but with the risk of doing less well? If you decide on the latter, holding a diverse range of funds is recommended so that you're not solely invested in equities. The split between shares and other assets should be reviewed as you get closer to retirement.
Before taking any steps, though, you would be best advised to seek independent financial advice.
We have an interest-only mortgage fixed until May 2009 on our home in the UK. We are also renovating a house in France and want to take out a French mortgage. We are getting lots of offers from UK mortgage companies which will obviously make commission on the deal when it is passed to a French mortgage company, but we would like to avoid costs where possible. Where should we start?
The French property market has proved a lot more stable than that of the UK in the recent downturn. This, plus the rising cost and poor availability of mortgage finance in the UK, may lead more potential ex-pats to check out euro mortgages.
Any transaction will be complicated and you will leave yourself vulnerable if you try to manage without a mortgage broker.
Miranda John, manager of broker Savills Private Finance International, says: "UK lenders can't usually loan on a French property, so you need to see what French banks can offer. However, dealing directly with these can be frustrating due to language difficulties. Also, not all of the competitive products via smaller niche lenders are easy to locate.
"There are specialist brokers for the overseas market but look for one with a proven track record. There can be hidden charges on an acquisition/renovation loan and significant variation in interest-only/deferred options. Brokers also have exclusive deals and preferential rates, which may offer long-term savings," Ms John said.
Do you need a financial makeover?
Write to Julian Knight at The Independent on Sunday
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