Whether you’re ready to open your first online broker account or simply wondering if you’re getting the best service for your money from your current one, here are 8 things to consider.

1. Trading commissions

Surprise! Cheaper is not always better. We know you’ve probably figured that out, but the price per trade at an online broker may also indicate the level of customer service that comes with it.

If you aren’t trading in and out of shares very often (and you shouldn’t be), and you’re not too concerned about whether your trade is executed within 15 seconds or two minutes (and you shouldn’t be), there really isn’t a significant difference among the brokers charging $15 to $30. If you go much cheaper than that, you may have trouble getting someone on the telephone to answer any questions you may have. And if you’re paying much more than that, you should expect near-flawless service.

2. Other fees

Beyond the trading commissions, you’ll find that brokerages may charge other fees, including fees for transferring assets into the account, fees for closing an account, account inactivity fees, annual fees, and fees for not maintaining a minimum balance. If you know your needs, you won’t end up paying for services you don’t need.

3. Minimum initial deposit

If you’re just starting out, consider what you’ll be able to comfortably invest initially. Some brokers have account minimums, so find the one that best fits your budget.

4. Customer service

For Fools, customer service is a biggie. If nothing else, you should put some time into researching a broker’s service before you sign on the dotted line.

In the case of online brokers, customer service includes website performance and interface. Check out each broker’s website. Is the interface intuitive? Can you find what you’re looking for without having to click 65 links? Is it speedy?

If talking to a live human is important to you, test their phone service. Does the broker answer the phone promptly? You’ll definitely want to see how the broker does at sending you all relevant material you ask for online.

5. Research

Some brokers market their research as a real plus. That’s fine, but you probably don’t want to pay for it. There’s plenty of research available on the Web. Some of the offerings include analyst reports, real-time quotes, and detailed financial data.

6. Investment product selection

All online brokers offer shares traded on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), and some will offer international trading, usually at a hefty cost.

But there are a number of other investment vehicles that you may wish to use. If you’re interested in risking your hard-earned cash on Contracts For Difference (CFD), you’ll have to see which brokers offer them. Other choices such as options, funds and the like are not available through every broker.

Determine what you expect you’ll need — we’re fans of just plain old shares, especially if you’re young — and act accordingly.

7. Other methods of getting your trades executed

What if the Internet breaks? We’d all probably get a bit more exercise and sun now and then. Seriously, though, sometimes you may not have access to a computer.

Check out whether the brokers you’re considering also have touch-tone phone trading, and how that works. Sometimes you just might want to place an order through a real, live person, and many online brokers offer that option, too.

8. Other freebies and perks

We wouldn’t suggest making too big a deal about the freebies. After all, they are one-time things, and getting your first trade for free probably isn’t going to be worth the hassle if you soon find that you’ve made the wrong choice and have to move your account elsewhere.

Still, free money is free money. So if you find yourself deadlocked on which broker to go with, cash (or some other perk) can be a persuasive tiebreaker.

Finally, remember this: If you’re only making five, six, 10, even 20 trades in a year, the difference between paying $15 per trade and $30 per trade isn’t significant. We think it’s better to make customer service a priority and not sweat about most of the other stuff. After all, how much did you ever worry about which bank to open your first bank account with? The differences are about the same.


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