NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There are lots of brokerage firms out there. Each one will likely tell you that it can offer more for your investing dollar than its competitors can. It's up to you to know what you should look for in a broker and what you need to do to open an account with one.
Choosing a Broker
One of the first questions you'll want to ask yourself when you start your search for a broker is: "Which brokers will let me open an account?" Some brokers have restrictions that limit who will be able to open an account with them. These restrictions usually boil down to age and money.
If you're young and interested in investing, keep in mind that in order to open your own brokerage account, you'll need to be a legal adult (usually 18 years old). If you're not considered a legal adult yet, you can still invest, but your parents will need to set up a custodial account with your broker.
A custodial account is essentially an account set up for a minor for which the parents bear the legal responsibilities on the minor's behalf. With a custodial account, you'll still be able to trade stocks just as you would with your own account, but your parents' names will be on the account as well.
Another thing you'll have to think about is the minimum account balance required by your broker. Most brokers require a minimum account balance for the same reason that banks do: They make money by lending your cash out to other customers in exchange for interest. Because it's expensive for a broker to maintain your account, they have to be sure that you're bringing in enough incremental revenue to cover the expenses of having you as a customer. As points of reference, minimum balances for online discount brokers are usually between $500 and $1,000.
Next, you need to determine whether or not a broker meets your needs. Important things you'll want to know about a broker include:
- Can you walk into the broker's office and get one-on-one help?
- Does the broker even know what they're doing?
- How can you get money into your account?
These days, online discount brokers have become pretty universal in their acceptance. They're convenient, their fees are lower, and you can get your information instantly. But for some people, being able to walk into a real office and talk to a real person is a big deal. If that's the case for you, then a traditional "brick-and-mortar" or full-service broker might be worth looking at.
Remember, though, fees are usually much higher with full-service brokers, and unless your account has a pretty impressive balance, you probably won't be getting a whole lot of face time with your broker.
Never fear: Even discount brokers are now touting their hundreds of office locations and approachable brokers -- a sign of the ever-shrinking customer service gap between the full-service brokers and the discount ones. However, even with a discount broker, expect to be charged considerably more for taking advantage of those broker-assisted trades.
Make sure to look into professional affiliations. For stockbrokers, the independent governing body was the National Association of Securities Dealers, which became part of Finra in 2007. You can find a wealth of information on your broker at the Finra Web site.
Funding Your Account
You'll likely need a checking account to get money into your brokerage account. While cutting a check has been the method of choice for quite some time, paperless methods such as electronic funds transfer are becoming an industry standard for getting cash into your account. For your opening deposit, they'll likely still need a check. (Sorry, folks, no credit cards accepted here.)
You've likely heard of a margin account. It's essentially a way for you to borrow money (or securities) from your broker to invest. Buying on margin is not something that you'll want to do until you're pretty familiar with investing and understand the additional account restrictions related to margin (such as a higher minimum balance).
Services: Stocks and Beyond
The services brokers provide to their clients can vary quite a bit from firm to firm. Chief among them is the ability to buy and sell stocks. When novice investors think about investing, buying and selling stocks is usually what comes to mind, but there are other securities, or investment products, that might be of interest down the road.
Other investment products, such as mutual funds, bonds, options and CDs, can also be purchased through your broker. While these types of investments might not be something you're interested in right off the bat, the way they are handled by your broker should be something that you consider when you're looking into opening a brokerage account.
Of special interest are mutual funds. Many larger brokers have their own mutual fund offerings or special relationships with firms that do, and you can bet that they're going to push those funds a lot harder than they will the competition's funds. If you're considering putting some money in mutual funds, check to see how many mutual funds your broker offers with no transaction fees. But don't let these fees be a deal-breaker. With the rise of exchange-traded funds, the mutual fund arena is changing.
Platform: Your Trading Dashboard
If you decide to open an account with an online discount broker, a big factor to consider is the trading platform you'll use to access your account. In the past several years, firms that offer online trading have been working to redesign their trading platforms in a way that makes information more readily available to their clients.
These days, most well-known firms have very impressive trading platforms that provide investors with account information, research and, of course, the ability to buy and sell investments. If you head over to the Web site of a broker you're looking at, you can find a breakdown of what's offered in the trading platform.
Additionally, many brokers offer more advanced platforms that appeal to investors who have high volumes of trades (such as day traders). While these premium platforms may offer more features, they typically come at an additional cost to you, the client. When it comes down to it, if you're not going to use the additional features (and most won't), don't bother with them.
Fees: Investor Beware
There are five major types of fees associated with having a brokerage account:
1. Trading Fees
You're pretty much guaranteed to incur these. Your broker will charge you a fee for every trade you make. This is usually under $10 per trade with an online discount broker.
2. Broker-Assisted Orders
If want to have your broker make trades for you, then you will usually need to pay for that extra face (or phone) time -- substantially more than you would for a regular self-directed trade.
3. Account Maintenance
Some brokers charge monthly maintenance fees or inactivity fees when their clients don't meet certain conditions. Become familiar with your broker's policies on this.
The interest on the money you borrow from your broker can be pretty hefty in some cases. Usually, low trading and maintenance fees are offset by higher margin interest rates.
5. Withdrawal or Transfer Fees
Some brokers will charge you for taking money out of your account. Make sure that you understand the limitations placed on your ability to touch your own cash.
Remember, not all of these fees will apply to you, so before you select a broker, make sure you're not paying for services that you won't find yourself using.
Applying for Your Account
Once you've made your way through the labyrinth of brokers and found the right one for you, it's time to take the plunge and set up your account.
If your broker has a retail location nearby, you should be able to set up an account in person. Otherwise, you'll be able to fill out your brokerage application online.
In terms of the information you'll be asked to submit on your application, opening a brokerage account isn't far off from opening a checking account. Still, national security legislation has impacted the policies that many financial institutions have for opening new accounts. Brokerage firms are now held to a higher standard of verifying the identities of their clients.
Here are some of the things you'll be expected to provide when you open your account:
- Basic personal information (name, address, employer)
- Your Social Security number
- Signature card
- W-9 form
- Two forms of identification (including one photo ID)
- Check (to make your opening deposit)
If you decide to open your account in person, it's a good idea to ask the broker what you'll need to bring before you show up at their office. Provided that you have all the required documents, your account will usually be set up the same day. If you open an account online, you'll probably get a follow-up telephone call, where you'll be asked to mail or fax copies of your IDs and W-9.
Opening a brokerage account isn't much more complicated than opening a bank account, but it can take its due share of research. By taking the time to ensure that a particular broker is right for you, you'll be doing your future portfolio a big favor.