Is self assessment too taxing to do it yourself? High street accountants will prepare and complete the forms for around £250, while budget online services start as low as £50. But how do you find an accountant, what should you pay and what do you get?
A Google search elicits scores of services promising "We won't be beaten on price", but the first thing to remember is that in the UK anyone can call themselves an accountant, whether they have qualifications or not. So check the firm's status. How many of the staff are members of the Chartered (ICAEW) or Certified (ACCA) professional bodies? Don't be fooled by words such as "professional" or "tax expert" – they mean little.
The ICAEW operates a find-an-accountant service at icaew.com. but that only lists names and telephone numbers. Guardian Money contacted firms around the UK, and were typically quoted £150 to £200 for a basic self-assessment service, more in London.
You can claim the cost of your accountant's fees – for preparing your tax return, for example – as a tax deduction.
If your needs are relatively simple, and you're happy using email and post rather than seeing someone in person, then the online services are worth trying. One of the cheapest we found was FixedFeeTaxReturn.co.uk. a trading name of chartered accountants Thandi Nicholls in Wolverhampton.
The firm charges £89 plus VAT for its self assessment service for the self-employed or workers with freelance income. A cheaper £50 deal is offered to individuals who earn above £100,000 a year, who are required by HMRC to complete a self assessment form.
But critics call the cheap online services "sausage factories". Philip Hendy of PAH Accounting in Devizes says: "A £50 filing service will be just that. Data you provide, input into their
system and filed. You may as well do it yourself."
On AccountingWeb, an industry website, accusations are liberally thrown at the low-cost services. This, from one poster, is typical: "They churn out accounts at rock-bottom prices without checking a thing, and often use staff who simply couldn't get a job in a proper practice.
"We shudder at some of the things omitted and, indeed, at some extremely dubious claims made."
Maybe surprisingly, Simon Thandi, joint managing partner at FixedFeeTaxReturn, agrees with some of these concerns. "We hear horror stories of completely unqualified people setting up websites where the charges are highly misleading. They have a low upfront cost, but then lots of add-ons."
Thandi insists that customers of FixedFeeTaxReturn receive a full service, including advice on the different types of expenses that can be claimed, business use of a home and even pension contributions, but he does expect individuals to provide added-up income, receipts and expenses.
TWD Accountants (twdaccounts.co.uk ), in Stockport, is one of the biggest of the online self assessment services, with more than 6,000 clients. It charges £125 including VAT for basic PAYE, and £270 for the more complex self-employed tax returns. "Ours is a fixed price regardless of complexity," says director Mike Parkes, who boasts that all the staff handling the forms are ex-employees of HMRC.
But if you've yet to even start putting your accounts together, Parkes warns it may be too late. "We have to prioritise existing clients at this time of the year," he says – although FixedFeeTaxReturn says it can still accept new business and meet the 31 January deadline.
• The Guardian has partnered with Keytime to offer a tax return software package (available as a download or a CD Rom) starting from £23. Go to Guardiantax.co.uk