When you're looking for tax help, your first step is to identify the type of tax preparer you need. You'll want a professional who has the right experience for your particular needs and can work at a price you can afford. Consider these factors when shopping for tax preparer:

• Check out the person's credentials. Make sure the tax preparer has passed recent state or federal tests. (California, Maryland, and Oregon require licenses.) Ask the preparer if she is a member of a professional organization related to tax preparation and attends continuing education classes.

• Ask about tax-prep experience. Look for a tax preparer who has had at least seven to 10 years of experience. While that may not seem important, the more time a preparer has been working on tax returns, the more likely he is to have dealt with a tax situation similar to yours.

• Find out what types of clients the professional serves. Ideally, you want a preparer with clients similar to you. That way, you're more likely to get the best service for your particular needs.

• Request a price quote. Often, a tax preparer will say that he can't tell you what he'll charge until he determines which forms you'll need. But you can try to pin down an answer by presenting the forms you completed last year or by asking for a list of fees for various types of tax help. Avoid preparers who base their fees on a percentage of your refund. 

• Determine what kind of audit help you'll get. CPAs and enrolled agents can usually represent you before the IRS. The national chains provide free audit advice to clients, but you might have to pay extra to have someone accompany you to an audit or talk to the IRS on your behalf.