The information available to us is infinite thanks to the internet. But our time is limited. Sometimes, to find something out—such as where a long-lost friend or relative is currently working, your family’s genealogical past or where someone has worked—we need to hire a professional. If you don’t have any experience with private investigators, or PIs as they are often known, you may be wondering: How much does a private investigator cost? The short answer is it depends. There are a number of different factors that determine the rate you might be charged.
How much does a private investigator cost?
Overall, the cost of hiring a PI ranges between $80 and $500 per hour.
“What you’ve got to remember is that a private investigator is still a business owner,” said Don C. Johnson, the owner and CEO of Trace Investigations. “To determine our hourly rates, we have to take a number of things into consideration, such as overhead, personal expenses, staff, what the competition is charging and so on. This is why you might see one PI charging $100 an hour and another $500. It’s impossible to come up with just one price.”
Private investigator cost factors
To better understand what you might have to pay to hire a private investigator, here are some of the specific factors that impact the cost:
The biggest factor that determines how much a private investigator costs is the type of work arrangement you create. Is it a flat fee, hourly or retainer contract?
Flat fee jobs
Some things, such as locating someone, serving legal papers or doing a pre-employment screening, have a flat fee. For example, expect to pay between $45 and $75 to have papers served, depending on the state.
“We don’t charge hourly for these types of jobs because there are a lot of structured costs,” Johnson said. “The prices for a criminal background check are determined by local law enforcement, so all we do is pass this cost onto clients and then charge for our time, which we can predict better because of the routine nature of this type of work.”
By the hour cases
Another way PIs charge is by the hour. This is probably the most common pricing model because it ensures the investigator gets paid for the work they do. However, predicting how much these types of jobs will cost is nearly impossible because you don’t know how long they will take.
More complex jobs, such as locating a missing person or tracing ancestry, could become more expensive.
Lastly, you can also pay to put a private investigator on retainer. This means you pay a monthly fee and get access to their services as defined by the agreement.
This type of fee structure is mostly for lawyers and other people who frequently use PIs. As an individual, putting a PI on retainer rarely makes sense, mostly because this can cost you between $1,500 and $3,000 or more per month.
If, however, your case is involved or ongoing, consider asking what the retainer price is to see if this makes sense for your case.
One of the biggest cost factors for a private investigator is the market in which they operate, Johnson said.
In bigger cities, such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, many PIs charge between $200 and $500 per hour. In smaller markets, you can expect to pay between $85 and $150 per hour for similar services.
This is because most private investigators get most of their work from lawyers who need help investigating their cases. Lawyers charge more in larger cities and so do private investigators.
Scope of work
Because most private investigators charge by the hour, one of the biggest things that determines what you pay is the scope of the work. More complex jobs are going to take longer and therefore cost more than simple tasks.
For this reason, Johnson recommended people first ask if they really need a PI. In many cases, they can do some of the work themselves, for example running a people search.
Most people also don’t know how to estimate how long something will take. If you do decide to hire a private investigator, make sure to get a quote before you move forward so you have an idea of what you might be expected to pay.
Something else that contributes to the cost of hiring a PI is the expense related to doing the job. The hourly rate you pay is simply for the investigator’s time. If they have to pay for anything else, you have to reimburse them.
This includes any court fees they may incur and also things like car mileage and parking fees. If the investigator has to drive all over town or to the next county to gather the information you seek, this will add to your cost.
How much this is going to be is hard to predict. Most PIs use the federal rate for mileage reimbursement, currently 56 center per mile, though this changes almost every year.
A good PI should be able to estimate how much you will have to spend in additional expenses, but no one can predict everything. Be prepared to pay more than what you’ve been quoted as an hourly rate.
How to save money when hiring a private investigator
Hiring a private investigator can become expensive. It’s a premium service that commands premium prices.
However, if you decide you need a PI, there are some things you can do to keep costs down.
Just like you would for anything else, don’t necessarily hire the first PI you find. While doing so might be easier, it can end up costing you money. Perhaps the PIs who are easiest to find spend more on marketing and charge more.
Treat this like any other service. Shop around and contact a few people. There’s no harm in getting a quote and comparing it to other PIs in the area.
One thing you can do is ask your lawyer. Most attorneys work with private investigators, and they may be able to point you to someone reputable. Even if you’re not working with a lawyer on this specific project, it can still be a helpful place to start. Another option is to ask friends and family for a referral.
Do your homework first
Hiring a private investigator should be your last resort because they can be so expensive. To save money, you can first do some work on your own.
For example, if you’re trying to find a long-lost friend or relative, consider first checking the courts or other online search tools. This is where the PI is going to start, but they will charge you $100 or more for that.
If you can go to the PI and say, “Hey, I looked here, here and here and still found nothing, it’s your turn,” not only will you save money but you’ll make the PI’s job easier.
Check in often
When working with a PI, check in with them frequently. This will help you keep your finger on the pulse of the investigation and determine how well it’s going. If several attempts to find the information you seek don’t work out, you can pull the plug or perhaps provide guidance for how to proceed.
If you leave an investigator to their own devices, they may explore routes you don’t want to explore, driving up costs. This isn’t necessarily a dishonest practice, but it can lead to some unexpected bills.
Be prepared for failure
Johnson said you need to be realistic when you hire a PI.
“People hire private investigators because they want answers,” Johnson said. “But sometimes those answers just aren’t there. There may come a time when you have to just accept that there’s nothing else to do and that it’s time to leave the case until there is new information.”
Set a limit
If you hire a private investigator and don’t really know the scope of the project, one way to keep costs down is to set a limit on the number of hours the investigator can spend on the case.
They may spend less time but at least this way you know the maximum amount you might have to spend and you can avoid any surprises at the end.
This will help you avoid dead-end investigations and potentially protect your wallet.
How to hire a private investigator
If you’ve never hired a private investigator but feel like you need to, getting started can feel overwhelming. Here are tips to help you get started:
Search by specialty
Not all private investigating is the same. Certain PIs specialize in specific services. For example, some might be more focused on employment screens and background checks, whereas others might center their services on tracking people down or family law matters.
To make sure you work with the right person, consider searching for PIs who specialize in the service you need. Include this in your online search and look at their website for testimonials or case examples that demonstrate they’ve worked on similar cases.
Check for credentials
Most states, and some towns and cities, require private investigators to have a license. Make sure the person you work with is in full compliance with the law before you hire them.
Another thing PIs can do is acquire certification from a professional organization. For example, a PI can become a “Certified Legal Investigator.” This means they have been peer reviewed and deemed fit for the profession. This type of certification is not a requirement, but it’s a good endorsement of the PI and their work.
To go one step further, consider asking if the investigator has professional liability insurance. In some cases, this is required. Working with an insured PI means you can’t be held responsible should something happen to the investigator while they’re working on a case.
Beyond that, check to see if the investigator is affiliated with any other oversight bodies, such as a local chamber of commerce or the Better Business Bureau.
Private investigating is a business that provides a service in exchange for payment.
To make sure you work with someone good, look them up on review sites such as Yelp or Google Reviews. As always, take these with a grain of salt. But they should give you an idea of what it’s like to work with a particular investigator and if it’s worth hiring them.
Options if the private investigator cost is too high
While there are things you can do to lower the cost of hiring a private investigator, there’s no escaping the fact that this can be an expensive service. If you find it’s going to be too much, know there are other options.
For example, a lot of records are public. By heading to the town or county clerk’s office, you can find information on real estate transactions, court records, birth records and more. You can also start your public records search online and go from there.