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10 quick tips for hiring a CPA

by Tony Novak, CPA,  revised 3/18/2013


Is it time to seek professional help with your finances? No one is better prepared than a CPA. Yet the process of hiring a CPA can be intimidating. These ten quick tips are meant to help make the process easier.

  1. Take the time to meet several candidates, even if just by phone. Don't hire the first CPA you happen to meet. Skip those who won't offer a no cost telephone or in-person interview. Focus that meeting on evaluating the CPA but don't expect to get into the details of your work in that introductory interview.

  2. Do an online background check. Simply Google the CPA's name and this should bring up independent third party references, like industry group membership or a BBB record. If you have any doubt, check with your state accountancy board.

  3. Consider more than ability to prepare tax returns. Taxes are only a small part of your financial life; your CPAs practice and expertise should be equally diverse.

  4. Remember that experience counts more so than in other professions. In this type of work a CPA with decades of experience brings added value. It is never wise to put your financial future in the hands hire a rookie.

  5. Make sure that your CPA is tech-savvy especially if this is an important part of your life. If you Skype and IM frequently as primary methods of communication, for example, then you'll be frustrated if your CPA is not able to respond in the same manner.

  6. Don’t hire the cheapest or the most expensive CPA. The least expensive tend to focus on bookkeeping functions. The most expensive tend to focus on corporate or government audits. You want a mid-range diversified professional. If you need to save money, hire a CPA who has lower overhead like one who works in a smaller rural firm or a home office.

  7. Avoid CPAs who charge asset-based fees or accept commissions. These might be appropriate in some situations bet are not a good place to start a new relationship.

  8.  Don’t hire a CPA who is difficult to understand. Evaluate whether your verbal conversation flows smoothly and that you feel comfortable that you understand what's being discussed. If not, it's not your fault; find a CPA who can explain it clearly.

  9.  Consider alternate ways to calculate the CPA's fee. Most CPAs bill on an hourly basis but, at the same time, agree that this is not the best approach for either the client or the accountant. Do not hesitate to request a fixed fee arrangement if that better suits your specific needs. In some cases it makes sense for fees may be based on results. A performance-based fee is typically preferred by both the client and the CPA if the details of this fee can be worked out and the results are subject to specific measurement. For example, you might agree to split a questionable tax refund with the CPA; no refund means no fee. Keep in mind that CPAs may work on a performance basis in most cases unless they are also performing audit and attestation services. Some small business CPAs are willing to barter their services for other products or services.

  10.  Make sure your CPA stands behind their work. A good CPA does not  deliver a bill until you confirm that you are satisfied with the work. There is no reason why a CPA would not be willing to offer a "satisfaction guarantee". 

About the Author: Tony Novak, CPA, MBA, MT, is a financial adviser based in the Philadelphia area. He serves middle income professional and self-employed small business clients and has authored hundreds of articles, columns and blogs on tax planning and related topics over a professional career spanning more than 30 years. He can be reached through his personal Web site at