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How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Private Investigator? A Comprehensive Guide

how much does a private investigator cost?

Whether you are an individual seeking answers to personal matters or a business requiring specialized investigative services, asking yourself, “How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Private Investigator?” may be an important question. While television shows and movies have made the role of a private investigator appear glamorous, in the real world, it’s crucial to understand the costs involved in hiring a professional. This guide aims to provide exhaustive and in-depth information to answer all the questions you might have about the cost of hiring a private investigator.

Table of Contents

  1. Key Factors Influencing Cost
  2. Questions to Consider Before Hiring
  3. Billing Models
  4. Special Cases
  5. How to Save Money
  6. Comparing Private Investigators
  7. Legal Considerations
  8. Final Thoughts

1. Key Factors Influencing Cost

Type of Investigation

The first significant variable that impacts the cost is the nature of the investigation itself. Different types of investigative work require various skill sets, levels of expertise, and time commitment. The list below details the commonly sought-after types of investigation and their general cost range.

  • Surveillance is one of the most common case types, and can have a professional cost range of $90 to $200 per hour.
  • Background checks and/or background check services can cost anywhere from $50 to $200.
  • A person locate or locating a missing person can cost $200 to $1000+.
  • Specialized fraud investigations are typically billed at $100 to $300 per hour.

how much does a private investigator cost


Surveillance cases usually involve the investigator trailing an individual, gathering evidence of activities or interactions. This kind of investigation often requires multiple hours of work, potentially across several days. The costs not only account for the time spent but also the complexity of the surveillance, including the number of locations and whether additional investigators are needed.

Background Checks

Background checks can range from a simple verification of an individual’s education and employment history to comprehensive screenings that include criminal history, social connections, and even personal habits. Simple checks can be relatively quick and cheap, but as you add more layers of investigation, the cost will rise accordingly.

Locating a Missing Person

Finding a missing person can be a labor-intensive process that involves deep background research, public record searches, and field investigation. Costs can escalate if the search spans multiple jurisdictions or countries.

Expertise and Experience

The skill level of the investigator is another critical component in determining the price you can expect to pay. Investigators with a wealth of experience, or specialized knowledge in areas like forensics or cybercrime, often command higher fees.

Experience level plays a part in the cost of a private investigator. Beginner or novice level investigators may take a case on at a lower rate due to their work load or inexperience. In contrast, an investigator with a specialized skill set may be more expensive.

  • Beginner level investigators can cost anywhere from $40 to $ per hour.
  • Experienced investigators typically stay with the industry standard rate of $150 to $300 per hour.
  • A specialized skill set, such as an arson investigator, may charge $300+ per hour.

cost range for a private investigator

Investigators early in their career may charge lower fees but also may take longer to achieve the desired results. On the other hand, experienced investigators, while more expensive, often bring the benefit of greater efficiency and a broader network of resources.

Specialized Skills

Specialized investigators offer niche services, such as forensic accounting, digital forensics, or even maritime investigations. Given the unique skill set, such investigators usually have higher fees.

Geographic Location

The location of the investigation is another factor that can greatly influence the cost. In major cities, where the cost of living is high, expect to pay a premium for investigative services.

Urban and rural areas may also be a deciding factor on how much a private investigator may charge. For urban areas, some investigators may charge $100+ per hour. In rural areas you may find investigators charging anywhere as low as $60 per hour.

location factors in pricing

Investigators in urban areas often have access to more advanced technology and resources, which is reflected in their higher rates. Conversely, in rural areas or smaller towns, the costs may be considerably lower.

Additional Costs

Beyond the hourly rate, there may be additional expenses you should account for. These could include mileage fees, costs for special equipment, and report generation.


Some investigators will charge for the distance they have to travel during the investigation. This is especially relevant in cases involving extensive surveillance.


If the case requires specialized equipment like high-quality cameras, GPS trackers, or other surveillance gear, there may be additional charges.

Reports and Documentation

At the conclusion of the investigation, you may request a detailed report outlining the investigator’s findings. Some investigators include this in their hourly rate, but others may charge extra.

2. Questions to Consider Before Hiring

Before you hire a private investigator, there are several crucial questions you should consider. These questions not only help you understand the total cost but also ensure that you hire the right professional for your specific needs.

What is Your Budget?

Determining your budget upfront is essential. Knowing how much you’re willing to spend can guide your choice of investigator and also allow the investigator to offer a plan that fits within your financial constraints.

Is There a Retainer?

Many investigators require a retainer fee to begin the investigation. Retainers are usually a lump-sum payment that covers a set number of hours of work. They can range from as low as $500 for simpler cases to as high as $10,000 for complex or long-term investigations.

Are There Packages or Flat-Rate Options?

Some investigators offer flat rates for specific kinds of investigations like background checks or asset searches. These packages can sometimes offer savings over the hourly rate, especially for more straightforward cases.

private investigator billing options

What Does the Hourly Rate Include?

It’s important to understand what is covered in the hourly rate. Does it include preparation and planning time? What about the time spent writing reports or analyzing findings? Clarifying these points upfront can save misunderstandings later on.

Will There Be Additional Expenses?

Always inquire about the possibility of extra charges. These could be for travel expenses, court appearances, or specialized equipment. Forewarned is forearmed.

Are There Any Discounts?

Though not common, some investigators offer discounts for long-term contracts or for certain types of clients, such as law firms or corporate entities that are likely to provide repeat business.

These questions aim to give you a better understanding of the financial obligations involved in hiring a private investigator. Cost should never be the sole criterion for hiring an investigator; the investigator’s skill set, reputation, and integrity are equally important. But knowing the financial aspect will ensure that there are no surprises later on.

3. Billing Models

Understanding the billing models that private investigators employ can help you make a more informed decision. Each model has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and the right one for you will depend on your specific needs and circumstances.

Hourly Rates

This is the most common billing model in the private investigation industry. It is often the most straightforward, but it also leaves room for cost overruns if the investigation becomes more complicated than initially expected. Hourly rates vary based on the factors discussed in the first section, such as the investigator’s expertise, the type of investigation, and the geographic location.


  • Flexibility in scope and duration of the investigation.
  • Easier to start or stop the investigation as required.


  • Uncertainty about the total cost, especially for prolonged or complex investigations.

Flat Rates

For certain types of investigations that have a clearly defined scope and expected duration—such as background checks, asset searches, or locating a missing person—a flat rate may be more appropriate. Flat rates offer the advantage of cost certainty, but they can be more expensive if the investigator overestimates the time required.


  • Cost certainty and easier budget planning.
  • No surprises when the final bill arrives.


  • May end up paying for services you don’t need if the package includes them.
  • If the investigation requires additional work beyond the flat rate, costs could escalate quickly.

Retainer Model

Some investigators require a retainer upfront, especially for more complex or long-term cases. This is a pre-paid amount that the investigator draws from as they work on your case. Once the retainer is used up, additional costs will either require a new retainer or will be billed separately.


  • Ensures the investigator’s commitment and availability for your case.
  • Easier to manage costs by paying in increments.


  • Larger upfront financial commitment.
  • Possibility of unused hours if the investigation concludes early.

Results-Based Model

This is a less common model where the investigator’s fee is contingent on achieving certain predefined outcomes. While this might seem attractive, it’s worth noting that this model can raise ethical concerns and may even be illegal in some jurisdictions.


  • Pay only if the investigation is successful.


  • Can be more expensive as the investigator takes on more risk.
  • Ethical and legal concerns could arise.

Selecting the right billing model depends on various factors like the nature of the case, your budget, and how you prefer to manage finances. Always discuss billing options upfront with any prospective investigator and make sure all financial terms are clearly laid out in your contract.

4. Special Cases: When Costs May Skyrocket

Certain investigations have variables that can significantly increase the overall cost. These special cases often require advanced skill sets, specialized equipment, or extensive fieldwork.

International Cases

Investigations that extend beyond national borders often come with an array of challenges, including language barriers, legal complications, and increased travel expenses.

factors affecting international costs of private investigations

Technologically Intensive Investigations

Cyber investigations, data retrieval from complex systems, or advanced forensic work are not only time-consuming but require highly specialized skills.

Factors Affecting Tech-Intensive Costs

Stakeouts and Long-Term Surveillance

24/7 surveillance or stakeouts for an extended period can incur costs not just for the investigator’s time but also for any additional team members needed, equipment, and travel expenses.

Factors Affecting Surveillance Costs

Court Appearances

If an investigator needs to appear in court to present findings, this typically comes at a higher rate due to the preparation required.

Factors Affecting Court Appearance Costs

When dealing with special cases, always establish a comprehensive understanding of the cost structure. These types of investigations can quickly become expensive, so clear communication and a well-defined contract are essential.

5. How to Save Money When Hiring a Private Investigator

While hiring a private investigator is often a necessary expense, there are ways to manage costs effectively:

  1. Set Clear Objectives: Knowing what you want to achieve can help streamline the investigation.
  2. Review the Contract: Make sure you understand all charges and ask for clarification where needed.
  3. Ask for Itemized Billing: This allows you to see where your money is going and helps you dispute any charges, if necessary.
  4. Negotiate: While not all costs are negotiable, some might be, especially for longer-term contracts.
  5. Do Some Legwork Yourself: Certain elements of the investigation, like gathering initial documentation, can be done by you to save time and money.

By being proactive and involved, you can exert some control over the investigation’s overall cost. Remember, cheaper is not always better; the investigator’s competence should be your primary concern, with cost as a secondary consideration.

6. Comparing Private Investigators: What to Look For

Once you have a good grasp of the costs involved, you’ll want to start comparing potential private investigators. Here are some factors to consider in addition to cost:

Credentials and Licensing

Ensure that the investigator is licensed and in good standing in your jurisdiction. Licensing often entails passing an examination and undergoing a background check. This ensures a minimum level of competence and ethical behavior.

Specialized Skills

Does your case require specific expertise, such as cyber forensics, financial auditing, or language skills? Make sure the investigator you choose has the necessary skill set.


While new investigators may be competent, experience often brings efficiency, a network of contacts, and a level of discretion and professionalism that can be invaluable.

Reputation and Reviews

Online reviews, testimonials, and word-of-mouth recommendations can provide valuable insights into an investigator’s reliability, effectiveness, and professionalism.

Accessibility and Communication

The investigator should be easily reachable and willing to communicate openly with you about the progress of your case. A lack of communication can not only be frustrating but also costly if it leads to misunderstandings or delays.

Contract and Fees

Make sure you fully understand the contract, including all fees and possible additional costs. The contract should outline the scope of the investigation, the billing model, and what is included in the cost.

investigator criteria

It’s crucial to remember that while private investigators can provide a wealth of information and insights, they must operate within the law. Illegal activities like trespassing, hacking, and wiretapping can not only jeopardize your case but could also result in legal penalties for both you and the investigator. Always ensure that the investigator you choose is committed to operating within the legal frameworks of your jurisdiction.

8. Final Thoughts

Hiring a private investigator is a decision that can carry significant financial and personal implications. Understanding the costs involved can help you make an informed choice that balances both your budget and your needs. The right investigator can provide you with valuable services that are worth the investment. But the wrong choice could cost you money, time, and even legal trouble. Being informed is the first step in making the right decision.

We hope this comprehensive guide has provided you with the in-depth information you need to understand the costs involved in hiring a private investigator and how to make the best choice for your unique situation.

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