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Doing homework before opening a bank account will pay dividends.

March 18, 2000|NANCY KINSEY NEEDHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In between making and spending money, you need a good place to put it.

Stuffing it inside the mattress went out with the water bed. And if you have kids or a sweet tooth, forget about the cookie jar.

The good news is that bankers--those smiling people who sit behind big, wooden desks--are ready to answer questions and put your dollars into one of their accounts.

To help you decide which bank will best suit you, we went to three of the larger ones and asked them a few questions of our own.

The three--California Federal, Wells Fargo and Bank of America--have branches in Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and other area cities, as well as farther afield.

That is important, according to Pam Porter of Bank of America in Camarillo.

"When choosing a bank, you should always look for convenience," Porter said. "You want your bank to have branches with ATMs near your home and work."

Then find out what hours the bank is open and make sure those work for you, she said.

Nina Puente at Wells Fargo in Newbury Park offers additional advice.

"I think name and reputation are important when deciding on a bank," Puente said. "You want someone who has been around for a while."

When you go to a bank to open a new account, make note of how busy it is and how fast the tellers serve you. The service probably will not improve once they have your money.

Bank of America and Wells Fargo have branches inside supermarkets, some of them staffed seven days a week. Branch hours may vary, though, so be sure to ask about the ones you plan to frequent. If a branch is open only when you are at work, that could be a problem.

Most banks offer 24-hour banking with ATMs, some of them drive-thru.

Some, like Cal Fed in Thousand Oaks, still offer drive-thrus with tellers.

Customers can make only one transaction at the drive-thru, though--for two or more, you must go to the ATM or inside the bank. There is no extra charge for using an inside bank teller.

At Bank of America, one checking account plan charges $2 extra if you go inside and use a human teller instead of the ATM.

Other fees to ask about include how much a box of 200 regular checks costs. It is $17.50 at Wells Fargo, $11 at Cal Fed and $9.95 at Bank of America. Online banking is free at Wells Fargo and Cal Fed, while there is a $9.95 one-time cost for a computer disc from Bank of America.

That allows you to look up your account online and see your transactions. Online bill paying is extra, about $6 a month at each bank.

If you don't have a personal computer and need to telephone the bank to learn pertinent information, you get six free calls a month at Cal Fed and Bank of America and three free calls at Wells Fargo. After the free calls it costs $1.50 to talk to a human at each bank. Bank of America gives you the option of recorded phone help for 50 cents a call.

All three banks said there is no fee associated with using their ATM machines for cash withdrawals if you are a customer.

If you go out of their networks, Bank of America and Wells Fargo charge an extra $2, and Cal Fed charges an extra $1.50. Whatever ATM system you are using will also charge you a fee.

The banks we checked have similar monthly fees with options for interest-checking and other perks.

But, for a basic checking account, Cal Fed offered Infinity Checking for a $6 service fee that would be waived with a $600 daily balance.

Wells Fargo had a checking account for $9.50 a month with the service fee waived with a minimum daily balance of $1,000.

Bank of America's standard banking package has a monthly service charge of $8.50 that is waived with a minimum daily balance of $1,000.

All the banks offered a checking account with the monthly service charge waived or discounted with direct deposit or a minimum daily balance in a savings account.

"People should look for free checking or low monthly service fees when they're shopping for a bank," said Claudia Cisneros, a Cal Fed customer service representative.

If you bounce a check, the fee can range from $10 to $30, depending on the bank and your status with it.

If someone writes you a bad check, your bank will also charge you a fee that can range from about $4 to $8, depending on your bank.

If that sounds steep, you should look into overdraft protection. Some banks offer to automatically dip into your savings account if your checking account balance goes into negative numbers.

Although that could cost you a handling fee, it's usually less than if they stamp it "insufficient funds" and send it back.

Connecting a credit card to your account can also protect against overdrafts.

But, all in all, a good bank is one you can trust to give you fast and friendly service no matter what your minimum daily balance is. If that isn't happening, it's time to go bank shopping.

Nancy Needham writes a weekly consumer column and can be reached at nancy.needham@reporters.net.

' When choosing a bank, you should always look for convenience. You want your bank to have branches with ATMs near your home and work.'

PAM PORTER

Bank of America

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