Navigators for a voyage into the unknown

Information sources: a new series on where to go for cheap or free advice on financial services and products
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IF YOU'VE been wondering whether to steer your savings out of the calm waters of say, a building society, in search of higher returns elsewhere, you may have pondered putting money into unit trusts or investment trusts - stock market investment funds.

First stops for information are the Unit Trust Information Service, run by the Association of Unit Trusts and Investment Funds (Autif), and the Association of Investment Trust Companies (AITC). These exist to promote their respective member companies' interests but will give you a lot of good information, free of charge.

q The Unit Trust Information Service is at 65 Kingsway, London, WC2B 6TD and can be contacted on 0181 207 1361 (seven days a week, 8am-11pm).

q Main publications are Unit Trusts and You, which is an introduction and Unit Trusts - A User's Handbook which is more comprehensive. Also available from Autif is a list of managers, which includes the number and value of the funds each company manages and a booklet called Unit Trusts - The Directory, which shows charges for different funds, minimum investment levels (both one-off and for regular saving), whether the fund is available in PEP form and how often income is paid out.

q A range of free factsheets covers specific areas is available from Autif, including: Unit Trusts and Tax, PEPs, PEPs and Pensions, PEP Mortgages, Bond Fund PEPs, Monthly Savings, Saving for Children (which covers how you can invest tax-efficiently on behalf of children), Education Costs (using unit trusts for saving for school and higher education fees) and Emerging Markets (high-growth countries of Asia and Latin America).

q Newspapers carry data allowing you to keep track of the investment performance of unit trusts. The Independent, for example, shows prices and yields. Performance league tables are available in specialist magazines such as Money Management, available from newsagents and in many public libraries.

q Unit trust companies can provide two useful documents for free on particular funds. The "scheme particulars" should include details of the fund's investment aim and remit, and costs. The manager's report, likely to be the more accessible of the two, will discuss the fund's aims, performance and investment profile. Experts recommend getting the past two annual reports on any fund you want to invest in.

q Investment trust buyers should start with the AITC at Durrant House, 8-13 Chiswell Street, London, EC1Y 4YY (0171 588 5347). It has a number of useful publications.

q Jargon (such as what an investment trust actually is, what discount and gearing mean) is explained in the AITC's Buying Shares in Investment Trust Companies.

q The association's Guide to Investment Trust Companies lists lots of the bread and butter features: which trusts can be put into PEPs, for example, minimum investments for lump sum or regular savings and arrangements for buying and selling as well as charges. The guide also has names and addresses of investment trust managers - useful for requesting copies of reports and accounts for investment trusts you might be interested in.

q Specific areas such as PEPs are covered in a number of free factsheets available from the AITC. Current titles include Investment Trust PEPs, Split Capital Trusts, Investment Trust Warrants and Planning for School Fees. Others, on personal pensions (which a number of investment trust managers now offer), investing for income and investing for children, are being prepared.

q Newspapers will give you some data - prices and dividend yields plus the price highs and lows for the year on the shares price page of the Independent; net asset value and premiums or discounts in the FT, for instance.

q Figures showing past performance are available from the AITC through its monthly information service. It includes figures for total investment return (income and capital), shows where the money is invested, the year- on-year growth in the dividend (the trust's income), and fund size. You can obtain a free copy from the AITC. The monthly information service also categorises trusts - for example, those investing in Europe - allowing comparisons.

q The AITC also offers a computer disc-based introduction to investment trusts. Called Touchbase 3, it covers what investment trusts are, how they work, and what financial needs they can satisfy. Touchbase is primarily aimed at financial advisers but as a special offer the AITC is giving 100 copies away to readers of the Independent on Sunday. Write to or telephone the AITC.

q Once you've begun to think about a shortlist of investment trusts, get copies of their reports and accounts from the fund managers. That will give you another snapshot of their performance (again historic) and give you some idea of whether your thinking tallies with the fund manager's.

q For details of new investment trust launches, try the weekly magazine Investors Chronicle, which also has a page devoted to a summary of the latest report and accounts from a selection of investment trusts or the FT's Weekend Money section on a Saturday. If you're hooked, you can subscribe to the quarterly specialist magazine Investment Trusts - pounds 14 (or pounds 12 by direct debit) from 01858 410510 and invest in the Investment Trust Yearbook at pounds 25 from stockbrokers Credit Lyonnais Laing on 0171 588 4000.

q By this stage, you may have decided that you would like some assistance on either type of investment fund. IFA Promotion (01179 711177) will send you details of three independent financial advisers close to where you live.