Check up on the experts

Most of us would welcome some expert help in sorting out our finances, but worry about picking an adviser who turns out to be incompetent or dishonest. Satisfying yourself on a few basic points should help you avoid falling into the clutches of such an individual.

First, be clear just what kind of advice is being given. Tied agents offer the products of just one company and traditionally seek introductions through friends and family. It may be that the company's products fit your needs, and you may prefer to stick to someone you know and trust. But prices may not be the most competitive, and the investment performance may not be the best available.

If you want a wide choice, go to an independent financial adviser. IFA Promotion (0117 9711177) can give you a free list of three IFAs in your area.

The next step is to make appointments and go along for a financial factfind. This is a series of questions designed to tell the adviser everything he needs to know about your finances. Most IFAs will offer the service for free. Don't be blinded by science. A good adviser should be able to explain in plain English why he is recommending a particular course of action.

In deciding whether to use an adviser, tied or independent, ask the following questions.

Who authorises them? It is illegal to give investment advice unless authorised by an approved regulator. The main body for IFAs is the Personal Investment Authority; tied agents are responsible to their host offices, which in turn are accountable for their agents' behaviour to the PIA. It may also be worth asking whether the adviser has had any complaints upheld against him by his regulator.

What are their areas of expertise? Some big firms will advise on anything from mortgages to tax planning and from pensions to overseas investment. But many smaller firms are limited to, say, life insurance and pensions. Make sure the adviser's expertise matches what you want.

How long have they been advisers? Check that your adviser has a track record in your area of interest. If you can find one who has proved himself with friends or business contacts, so much the better.

How will your interests be protected? In the case of PIA-registered advisers, you have the safety net of the Investors Compensation Scheme. This provides compensation of up to pounds 48,000 per investor if you have a claim on an adviser that he cannot meet. For a free booklet explaining how the ICS works, call 0171 628 8820.

How are they paid? The vast majority of IFAs are still paid by commission, which may create the temptation to sell you whichever product earns them the most, rather than the one that is best for you. Tied agents are paid through the charges deducted from your policy or savings plan, so they have an interest in selling as much as possible.

A third option is the small but growing number of IFAs who charge an hourly fee. They should redirect the commission they would otherwise earn into your savings. You may pay up to pounds 100 an hour for fee-based advice, but at least there should be less of a vested interest in selling you something.

When will you see them again? Most reputable advisers will want to review your finances periodically and in some detail to make sure your circumstances have not changed and that you are still happy with what you've got. Typically, this will happen about once a year.