Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Auditioning new banks, part 2

Here's the list of what I've looked at and why I've scratched them off my list. Banks in italics are still in the running. WaMu has the lead right now.

(Sorry for the lag; the last entry wasn't meant to be a cliffhanger. Once again, travel had me brainfried and distracted.)

But first, a word of griping -- why do banks make their terms so damn hard to excavate? I mean, yes, I realize displaying all the fees you try to gouge out right up front is not a good sales tactic, but it's absurd that I can't find all the fine print on some sites after an hour of digging around. GRR.

  • Bank of America: Charges fees for using outside ATMs

  • Citibank: Charges fees for using outside ATMs

  • Chase: Charges fees for using outside ATMs

  • Charles Schwab Bank Investor Checking: Online banks don't make me nervous. However, investor-focused banks do make me nervous, since I'm very much not the target audience. I don't have and don't ever plan to have a brokerage account. (Any savings I eventually accumulate will have to live in money market accounts, CDs or, at the most adventurous, mutual funds. Among many other considerations, I'm a business journalist, and it's a deeply bad idea for business journalists to own stock.)

    On the other hand, Charles Schwab appears to be offering an insanely good deal: No monthly service fees, free online bill pay, free ATM use, and unlimited ATM fee rebates. That last term sounds so absurdly good I don't expect it to last long, but it'd be fun while it did.

    And, woah, I just clicked on their Bill Pay demo -- it looks like the interface is the same as NetBank's! I suppose I shouldn't be shocked; banking system software seems like a sensible thing for financial services providers to acquire from a third-party, which can sell it off to multiple places. But hmm, it would be nice to stick with a UI I already know and like.

    So, is anyone using Schwab? Is there any sticking point I'm missing? (Schwab is one of the worst offenders in the burying-the-fine-print camp -- their site doesn't offer much in the way of details. After much prying, I finally found their Schwab Bank Deposit Account Agreement, dated Sept. 2006, which I hope makes it current.) How do they handle overdraft? The Bank Deposit Account Agreement booklet makes reference to various things, including an Overdraft Credit Line, which is one of the things on my "would be nice" list.

  • Commerce Bank: Is it bad of me to cross Commerce off my list solely because their website looks so 1999?

  • EverBank: This is the bank that bought NetBank and will automatically inherit my account sometime this summer if I don't move it. Staying put would be the path of least resistance, and EverBank gets good reviews and has no ATM surcharges -- it even reimburses up to $6 per month. However. It charges a $4.95 monthly fee to use online bill pay if your average daily balance dips below $1,500, and as mentioned in my last post, no monthly fees is one of my sticking points. So it gets crossed off my list.

  • ING Direct Electric Orange: ING gets bonus points for having the clearest disclosures I could find. Its FAQ is impressively detailed and forthright about detailing exactly what potential changes you could incur. It also clearly offers no-fee overdraft protection. However, it's off my list because it doesn't easily support paper check writing, and paper checks are still how I pay rent each month.

  • TD Banknorth: Like Schwab, TD Banknorth appears to have crazy good terms -- its SimplyFree Checking says it has no minimum balance requirements, no monthly fees, free bill pay, and an ATM card that not only has no outside charges, it reimburses bank fees. Hmm. Anyone use them? Any catches?

  • UmbrellaBank: Also reimburses ATM charges, up to $7.50 per statement cycle. It also has overdraft protection, one of my "would be nice" features. A definite possibility. The no-monthly-fee option is only available with recurring direct deposit, but that clause isn't a problem for me.

  • Wachovia: Endorsed by my sister, but charges fees for using outside ATMs, so off my list it goes.

  • WaMu: This is what I'm leaning toward. WaMu has ATMs near my apartment and my office, and it would be a novel and fun thing for me to actually have a local bank with local branches. Their free checking has no minimum balance and free online bill pay.

    The big question: Does WaMu charge for withdrawals from rival ATMs? Once again, their website totally fails to clearly address the issue. It loudly advertises "Free ATM cash withdrawals worldwide," with the fine-print clarification, "WaMu will not charge ATM fees for cash withdrawals, but non-refundable ATM operator fees and foreign currency exchange and transaction fees may apply."

    "WaMu will not charge ATM fees for cash withdrawals" implies that they, like, won't charge, but it also could have the unspoken coda "at our ATMs" -- and I can't find the finer fine print anywhere on their site. Kim and Catherine, two local friends, left comments on my earlier entry implying that they do get charged for outside ATM use.

    However, WaMu launched its Free Checking campaign last year, and it looks those terms began being offered for accounts opened after 3/06. So, it's seeming likely that anyone who opens an account after that date does indeed have free use of rival ATMs -- but WaMu might not have retroactively applied that to previously opened accounts.

    WaMu offers one NSF fund fee waiver each year; I can't tell if they offer overdraft lines of credit. But if the free ATM use thing pans out, I'm leaning the WaMu way.

So, it looks like the remaining contenders are Charles Schwab, TD Banknorth, Umbrella Bank and WaMu. Anyone had good or bad reports? Anything I should consider and missed, or fine-print nastiness I've missed with the contenders?