- The # 1 Rule is do your homework! Before plunking down money for a subscription database, hit the search engines and your favorite genealogy hangouts and ask others for their opinions on the service, company or individual you are considering. Sites which have questionable content or make it difficult to obtain refunds should be fairly easy to pinpoint with a search through genealogy bulletin boards and complaint sites such as RipOffReport.com and TheComplaintStation.com.
- Be wary of ads and services that promise a lot for a little, such as "Locate old classmates, missing family members and loves of your past! Find anyone." While some people search services are indeed legit, others basically separate you from your money for a set of links to freely available public records. Sites such as NetDetective.com, Web-Detective.com and GenealogyDetective.com regularly appear at the top of search engine results, for example, reeling in a lot of genealogy newbies. They also generate the most anger on Internet bulletin boards and complaint sites, something easily confirmed with a few simple searches.
- Ask yourself whether the same information might be available elsewhere for free. While many genealogical records are only available at a cost (contrary to popular belief, it does cost money to store, maintain and provide access to records), there are millions of genealogy records available for free on the Internet, thanks to the gracious time of thousands of generous volunteers.
- When in doubt, check with the friendly community library or courthouse. Librarians and court clerks are wonderful, helpful individuals, and many are happy to help with lookup requests and photocopies for a reasonable fee. Due to the high costs of bureaurocracy, many state agencies charge an arm and a leg for information that may be available cheaper at the local level. As an out-of-state resident, I can receive a copy of a record from the North Carolina State Archives at $20 per request (plus copying expenses), or I can request it from the local library for a much more reasonable $0.50 per page.
- Utilize the resources of your local family history center. An arm of the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Family History Centers operate in 64 countries, and more than 100,000 rolls of microfilm are circulated to the centers each month. These records include vital, census, land, probate, immigration, and church records, as well as many other records of genealogical value, from all over the world. And the best part - the microfilmed records can be rented at a very reasonable average rate of about $3 - $3.50 per roll.
While you shouldn't be afraid to spend money in the pursuit of your family history, a little extra time and research on your part may pay off in more than just new genealogy finds. It also may mean a little more money left over to spend...on more research!