For the most part, brokerages offer access to the same stock markets and the same investments as any other brokerage. The differences largely come down to how much it costs to get there, how much you need to get started, and what other features are tacked on as part of the service. These are things you should know before you decide to open a brokerage account. Let'stake a look at well-known brokerages OptionsHouse and TradeStation, and compare their services on features that are most important to long-term investors.
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Trading costs and commissions
It will always cost something to make a trade. Even free services cost something -- time, fewer features, limitations on trading, etc. But online discount brokerages have left a permanent mark on the brokerage industry by making investing accessible to everyone. OptionsHouse and TradeStation both feature affordable commission structures that can fit in even modest budgets.
Here's how their commission schedules compare by the type of investment.
Source: Company websites.
As you can see, both brokers are priced such that trading costs are only a few dollars apart at the standard rate. In all reality, effective costs may be closer than they appear from the table. TradeStation offers lower commissions to more active traders, for example. And many brokerages help defray the cost of commissions with special offers for opening an account -- think cash bonuses and commission-free trades.
Investors who have been saving for a long time, or who are rolling over an older account, might not be scared away by higher minimums, but low-minimum brokers can be a better choice for people who would prefer to start small and build up their accounts with routine deposits.
OptionsHouse doesn't have a required minimum deposit. TradeStation requires a $5,000 minimum, which is increased to $5,500 for IRA accounts. And although some brokerages do not have minimum investment requirements, you can occasionally collect on a few perks by depositing more than the minimum.
We at The Motley Fool prefer buying and holding to active trading. Our style of investing means that we rarely make changes to our portfolios, and we certainly don't log in every hour to check how our stocks are performing. When it comes to placing trades, virtually every broker makes the process simple enough for us -- it only takes a few clicks or keystrokes to make a trade.
Some investors like to trade more frequently. Others simply care more about aesthetics of a platform than we do. In either case, it's worth exploring a platform for yourself if a platform is an important part of how you invest. It's just not for us.
We think trading platforms can look cool, but we don't think of them as being an important part of our long-term investment process. Image source: Getty Images.
International stocks and ADRs
One way or another, most online brokerages make it possible to invest in companies that are domiciled in foreign countries, subject to some limitations. OptionsHouse and TradeStation offer similar capabilities here, delivering everything except direct access to international markets.
Source: Company websites.
If you like to use mutual funds or ETFs to invest in foreign stocks, you should be fine at either brokerage. If you want to trade ADRs, which are effectively shares of foreign companies listed on U.S. markets, either brokerage allows you to do that, too.
However, if you want to place a trade to be processed on, say, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in China, you won't be able to do that through OptionsHouse or TradeStation. In fact, only a handful of brokers offer international trading capabilities.
Research quality and tools
We tend to think that at-home investors can benefit by being able to research investments through tools and services provided by their brokerages. Free research is an especially attractive benefit because there's nothing to lose if you don't use it.
OptionsHouse and TradeStation both offer a vast assortment of fundamental and technical stock and fund screeners. OptionsHouse supplements its screens with a daily webcast, more than 10 daily reports, plus ResearchLAB reports on hundreds of the market's most important stocks. TradeStation produces its own Morning Market Briefing that it presents every morning, plus weekly stocks and ETF reports, in addition to nearly a half-century of charting data on its platform.
The truth is that we only touched on a few of each broker's capabilities. Depending on your needs, you can likely find plenty to like about the research offered by either brokerage.
Mobile app reviews
Customers of both brokerages give their brokers fairly high scores for their mobile trading apps. Here's how users and clients of each broker rated their iOS and Android apps (as of 1/04/2017).
Source: Relevant app stores.
Better bet for you: OptionsHouse vs. Tradestation
Depending on how you invest, either could suit your needs just fine. OptionsHouse delivers with lower standard commission prices and lower minimum account sizes. However, TradeStation's volume discounts can result in lower trading commissions for the most active investors, at the cost of a higher minimum account balance.
The point is that every brokerage has its pluses and minuses -- what's important is how the line-up of features compares to how you manage your portfolio. To be clear: The Motley Fool doesn't endorse any particular broker, but we can help you compare brokerages to help you in the hunt for the best broker for you. Visit Fool.com's Broker Center for a comparison of features and special offers for traditional brokerage accounts. The Fool.com IRA Center is specifically designed with the retirement saver in mind.
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