Kicking the tires: 10 questions to ask before signing up with a bank

Changing banks can be a hassle, but you can save yourself the trouble by choosing wisely in the first place. All too often, people choose a bank simply because there is a branch nearby or because it's the bank their parents used. Then, only after their accounts are up and running do they start to find out various negative things about the bank.

Instead, try kicking the tires a little before you choose your bank. Here are 10 questions you should ask:

1. What are your checking account fees?

Checking account maintenance fees average $12.83 per month, according to the latest MoneyRates.com bank fee survey, which adds up to more than $150 a year. However, a little more than 1 in 4 banks offer checking accounts without a monthly fee, so save yourself the money by looking for a bank that offers free checking.

2. If you charge checking account fees, what does it take to qualify for a fee waiver?

Another way to avoid monthly checking account fees is to qualify for a fee waiver. Banks will often waive these fees if you maintain a certain minimum balance, or if you set the account up to receive regular direct deposits such as paychecks. If you otherwise like a bank but don't want to pay their checking account fees, find out if they have requirements for a fee waiver that you can readily meet.

3. What savings account rate do you offer at the planned account size?

A bank might advertise an attractive savings account rate, but be advised that banks often offer different rates for different account balances. When comparing rates, determine what rate would apply for an account of the dollar amount you intend to deposit.

4. Is the savings account rate you quote your ongoing rate or just a teaser rate?

Another way people get fooled about savings account rates is by being lured by a temporary teaser rate offer, which is designed to revert to a lower rate in a month or two. Ask whether the rate you are being offered is just a teaser rate or the rate the bank is paying to long-term customers as well as newcomers.

5. Do you charge for paper statements on checking or savings accounts?

Not everybody has joined the online banking revolution, and if you still like being mailed hard copy statements, be advised that many banks are starting to charge for this service. Before you sign up with a bank, find out if there will be an extra fee for getting statements in your preferred format.

6. What are the locations of your branches and ATMs?

This is important if you regularly draw cash out of your account. If you use another bank's ATM, you will probably be charged a fee. In fact, you will probably be charged two fees, since both the bank that owns the ATM and your own bank are likely to charge you. You can avoid these fees by choosing a bank that has branch or ATM locations that correspond well with your regular travels.

7. Do you offer reimbursements for out-of-network ATM usage?

Some banks compensate for not having an extensive ATM network by reimbursing customers for any ATM fees. If your bank's ATM locations are limited, see if they offer this type of reimbursement. Also determine whether it happens automatically, and whether any restrictions apply.

8. Do you offer mobile check deposits?

Being able to deposit money by scanning an image of a check online is an important convenience for some customers, but not all banks offer it. If that's how you like to bank, make sure you choose a bank that has this capability.

9. Can I see a demo of your mobile account tools?

Besides mobile deposits, there are a variety of other mobile banking tools that can help you access and manage your accounts. Tech features vary greatly from bank to bank, so before you sign up with a bank, ensure their tools are to your liking.

10. Do you offer 24/7 customer service both online and by telephone?

Account problems don't always happen at a convenient time, so find out what kind of customer support the bank offers. It's most helpful if you have the option of communicating either online or over the telephone.

Finding a bank that can give the right answers to these questions could save you hundreds of dollars, and make your banking experience more pleasant and convenient. Additionally, getting the choice right will save you the bother of having to dump your bank in favor of a better option soon down the road.

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