Besides money and time lost, it is pretty clear that most tax advisors
are not well versed in non-resident taxes.
It seems that their main clients are either US residents or H1B
workers (who are required to file as residents).
I share your pain on this one. In fact, even for H1B/green card holders or Americans with income/property abroad vast majority of advisers will make mistakes (which may become quite costly).
IRS licensing exams for EA/RTRP do not include a single question on non-resident taxation or potential issues, let alone handling treaties. Same goes for the AICPA unified CPA exam (the REG portion of which, in part, deals with taxes). I'm familiar with the recent versions of both exams and I am very disappointed and frustrated by that lack of knowledge requirement in such a crucial area (I am not a licensed tax preparer now though).
That said, the issue is very complicated. I went through several advisers until I found the one I can trust to know her stuff, and while at it happened to learn quite a lot about the US tax code (which doesn't make me sleep any better by the least). It is my understanding that preparing a US tax return for a foreign person without a mistake is impossible, but the question is how big is the mistake you're going to make. I had returns prepared by solo working advisers where I found mistakes as ridiculous as arithmetic calculation errors (fired after two seasons), and by big-4 firms where I found mistakes that cost me quite a lot (although by the time I figured that they cost me significant amounts, it was too late to sue or change; fired after 2 seasons as well).
As you can see, it is relevant to me as well, and I do not do my own tax returns. I usually ask for the conservative interpretations from my adviser, IRS is very aggressive on enforcement and the penalties, especially on foreigners are draconian (I do not know if it ever went through a judicial review, as I believe some of these penalties are unconstitutional under the 8th amendment, but that's my personal opinion).
Bottom line - its hard to find a decent tax adviser, and that's why the good ones are expensive. You get what you pay for.
How do I go about locating a CPA/EA who is well versed in non-resident
taxes located in the Los Angeles area (Orange County area is not too
far away either)
These professionals are usually active in large metropolitan areas with a lot of foreigners. You should be able to find decent professionals in LA/OC, SF Bay, Seattle, New York, Boston, and other cities and metropolises attracting foreigners. Also, look for those working in the area of a major university.
- References. No, REFERENCES. Preferably from people who had similar situations to yours, and who have used their services for more than 2-3 seasons. UCLA, USC, and others have large amount of foreign students. Some of them may be in a situation similar to yours. Ask around.
- California Board of Accountancy maintains database of all CPA's licensed to practice in California. The database also includes languages - seek those speaking your language, they're likely to have experience with people similar to you.
- National Association of Enrolled Agents maintains a listing of its members (EA's don't have to join, so its not all-inclusive).
- National Association of Tax Preparers also maintains a listing of its members. NATP members can be RTRP's (CRTP's in CA), EA's, Attorneys or CPA's - anyone who is licensed to prepare tax returns.
If I find none, can I work with a quaified person who lives in a
different state and have him file my taxes on my behalf
(electronically or via scans going back and forth)
Yes. But that person my have a problem representing you in California (in case you're audited), unless he's an EA (licensed by the Federal government, can practice everywhere) or is licensed as a CPA or Attorney by the State of California.
Is there a central registry of such quaified people I can view
(preferably with reviews) - akin to "yellow pages"
IRS is planning on opening one some time this year, but until then - not really.
There are some commercial sites claiming to have that, but they're using the FOIA access to the IRS and states' listings, and may not have updated information. They definitely don't have updated license statuses (or any license statuses) or language/experience information. Wouldn't trust them.