You're on your own if you want an adviser

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AT LEAST one person a week asks me how to find a good independent financial adviser. I tell them it's a lottery and that everyone can do some basic planning without an IFA.

That's not the official line - I am supposed to say that those in search of professional help should get a recommendation from friends. Or call the IFA Promotion (IFAP) hotline (0117-971 1177) for the names of three local advisers: you should interview them, then choose one with whom you feel comfortable.

But there's no guarantee the IFA you find will be any good. And a friend's recommendation isn't foolproof. The adviser might be a nice bloke but does your friend know enough about money to be sure he or she is being sold the best deals?

What we need is an "at a glance" way to spot a good IFA. We know a chartered certified or chartered accountant is a member of a professional body and has passed some serious exams. There is no such professional body in the financial services industry. Instead we have the rival attractions of the IFAA, the IFP, SOFA and the LIA. Many other IFAs are members of networks - businesses which take a cut of the adviser's profit in return for business support. Networks also wield enormous power.

None of this makes any sense to the customer - and nor do the rival sets of financial services exams. How are we supposed to compare different advisers?

There have been moves to bring the various factions together, but all have been doomed by in-fighting. Great fun for the drama queens; irritating for everyone else. Why can't they sort themselves into one big, professionally run body?

The exam system could be sorted out, the customers would have more confidence and IFAs might start to earn some of the respect they think they deserve.

But at last two of the rival groups have started the long peace process. The Institute of Financial Planning (IFP) is a worthy body set up to promote better-qualified, upmarket advisers. The idea is that they will join with the big IFA Association (IFAA) to unify the industry. The new group wants to promote a higher standard of qualifications - and a single set of exams - for all advisers.

Good luck to them.

The Independent's personal finance editor, Nic Cicutti, has written a useful free guide to flexible mortgages. If you are buying a place or thinking of remortgaging, this booklet may help. A flexible mortgage gives you the chance to run your loan like a bank account, so you can pay in extra lump sums or borrow back money already paid into the account.

The guide is sponsored by lenders First Active. Call 0800 550551 for your copy.