How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Private Investigator?

January 17, 2024

Private investigators, also known as private detectives, offer surveillance and other investigatory functions to gather information to find a missing person or asset. If you are considering hiring a private investigator, it’s important to understand the fee structure and what the fee covers to help you plan and budget effectively.

On average, private investigators might charge anywhere from $50 to $100 per hour. While most private investigators usually charge hourly rates, they may also offer a flat rate for services like background checks or vehicle tracking.

At On-Call Legal, our licensed private investigators are experienced professionals always available to serve as your needed support system. From marital disputes to complex corporate fraud, we provide advanced surveillance for a variety of clients including insurance companies, legal firms, corporate entities, and private individuals. Schedule a free consultation with us now to discuss your needs.

In this article, you will learn what it costs to hire a private investigator, the factors that influence the costs, the average amount you should expect to pay, tips to avoid scam PIs, and much more.

Factors That Influence the Cost of Hiring a Private Investigator

Factors That Influence the Cost of Hiring a Private Investigator

The cost of hiring a private investigator in the United States varies widely based on many factors such as the complexity of the case, the experience of the investigator, location, the specific services required, etc. Let’s break down some of these key factors.

1. Experience and Expertise of the Private Investigator 

The more experience and expertise a private investigator has, the higher they’re likely to charge. For instance, a private detective who has actively worked in the industry for over 15 years will charge more than those with two years of experience. Also, private investigators with expertise in a specific area of investigation, such as digital forensics investigators, will likely charge higher fees than an unspecialized private investigator.

2. Geographical Location 

For example, urban areas are known for their high cost of living compared to rural areas. As a result, urban-based private investigators may charge more than rural-based private investigators.

3. Nature and Complexity of the Case

The complexity of a case and the risks involved may also impact private investigator charges. A straightforward investigation, such as digging up a person’s phone number or running a basic background check, may cost less than a more complicated case, such as surveillance, financial fraud, or criminal investigation.

4. Tools and Equipment

Tools and technologies such as specialized software, GPS trackers, advanced surveillance devices, and other high-tech equipment can increase what private investigators charge. However, not all cases require the use of these tools. 

5. Duration of the Investigation

Generally, private investigators charge more for cases that last for several weeks than those that last a few hours. Also, long-term investigations can attract additional costs such as unexpected complexities, travel costs, etc. For instance, many private investigators may need to go to other locations to gather evidence. Such investigations may attract additional costs such as mileage and travel expenses, airfare and hotel, etc.

Types of Private Investigator Services and Their Costs

From surveillance to general investigative services, private investigators offer various services at different costs. In the United States, most private investigators work for an average hourly rate ranging from $50 to $100 per hour depending on the type of services.

Note that the prices on this blog refer to general costs and does not refer to our fees at On Call Legal. For a more concise quote tailored to your specific private investigator service needs, contact us to schedule a free consultation and discuss your needs in detail.

Types of Private Investigator Services and Their Costs

Examples of these private investigator services and their average costs include:


Surveillance services involve discreetly tracking an individual, a group of individuals, or specific locations to gather information according to clients’ needs. Examples include monitoring phone calls, emails, financial transactions, etc. Surveillance operations usually cost an average of $50-$100 per hour.

Background Checks

Private investigators also conduct thorough research into people’s backgrounds to gather relevant information, such as date of birth verification, criminal records, etc. Basic background checks that include digging up criminal history, addresses, etc., may cost an average of  $200 to $600. Private investigator costs for more comprehensive checks, such as research into social media, financial records, or other specialized areas, may exceed $1000.

Missing Persons or Assets Investigations

Experienced private investigators also conduct in-depth investigations to find a missing person or hidden assets. The private investigator cost for missing person investigation ranges from $200 to $500, depending on how complex the case is.

Corporate Investigations

Corporate investigations involve cases associated with a business or an organization, for example, fraud, bribery, or embezzlement. Because they demand specialized skills and are time-consuming, private investigators usually charge several thousand dollars for such cases.

Legal Support

Lastly, private investigators also assist law firms in finding missing witnesses and legal documents, interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence, and more.

Common Billing Methods and Packages For Private Investigators

Common Billing Methods and Packages For Private Investigators

Hourly Rates vs. Flat Fees 

Private investigators usually charge hourly rate or flat fees for their services. Most times, they request flat fees for cases with predictable investigation time, while hourly rates are for tasks that involve unknown variables. Both billing methods have advantages and disadvantages.

Flat fees can help you prepare a fixed budget because you know the total cost upfront. They do not include extra charges due to extended hours. However, if the actual investigation time is less than the estimated time, you may feel like you’ve overpaid for the case.

Hourly rates are more flexible because clients pay for the exact working hours. However, one disadvantage of hourly rates is that it may be more difficult to estimate the final investigation cost when pre-planning.

Retainer Fees 

Private investigators usually demand an initial deposit, called a retainer fee. It covers all costs needed to complete the investigation. On completion, they give you a refund of the unused portion of the retainer fees. Meanwhile, if the fee gets exhausted before completing the task, some PIs may initiate a monthly billing cycle.

Hidden Costs and Additional Expenses 

Although investigators charge normal fees, certain additional expenses are usually excluded from their normal costs. These additional expenses can amplify your overall bill. They include administrative costs, mileage and travel expenses, special equipment or resources, database access fees, etc. Always ask about these fees when hiring a PI.

The mileage and travel expenses include bills related to lodging, airfare, meals, and other travel expenses. To estimate the total mileage cost, the IRS has standard mileage rates that estimate the cost per mile for different states in the U.S.

Administrative costs include costs associated with report writing, emails, phone calls, meetings, etc. PIs may also charge additional fees to access information from specialized databases.

How to Budget for a Private Investigator

Budgeting for PIs prepares you against any unforeseen contingencies. The following tips can help you plan right.

Estimating the Total Cost

Budgeting for a private investigator requires thorough planning and precision, considering various factors that can influence the amount. Some actionable steps to create a realistic estimate of hiring costs include:

  • Determine the kind of service you need—for example background checks, surveillance, divorce cases, etc.
  • Schedule a consultation with a PI to communicate your needs and provide relevant information about the case.
  • Understand the PI’s proposed approach and billing structure to avoid surprises. They should provide a detailed quote defining the fees and estimated hours. Otherwise, ask for it.
  • Discuss the investigation’s estimated duration with the PI. In addition, inquire about possible factors that may extend the investigation period.
  • Request a written agreement and ensure all fees, terms, and offers are clearly stated. You can ask questions if you need more clarification on anything.
  • Plan for unforeseen circumstances to ensure flexibility in your financial plan.

Negotiating Fees 

How to Budget for a Private Investigator

Negotiating fees with PIs is a professional and collaborative approach to getting the same quality of service at an affordable cost. 

  • First, understand their billing system and request a detailed quote from them. 
  • If a PI’s quote exceeds your budget, you can negotiate for a possible adjustment. 
  • Be open and transparent about your financial limitations, because the PI may have a solution that fits your budget without compromising value.
  • Discuss how the scope of work can change to fit your budget. Or inquire about less costly alternatives for achieving your defined objectives. 
  • If the investigation is likely to extend beyond the estimated period, you can request a lower hourly rate.
  • Build a good working relationship with your PI to create a positive environment for negotiations.

Tips For Minimizing Costs When Hiring a Private Investigator

To reduce PI costs without compromising the quality of the investigation:

  • Set clear objectives to define what you want to achieve in the investigation. 
  • Review all itemized billing and written contracts to understand all charges and cut irrelevant costs. Remember to ask questions if necessary. 
  • Negotiate costs with the PI, especially for longer-term cases. However, not all costs are negotiable. 
  • Provide your investigator with any prior information that is relevant to the investigation. This information can help speed up investigation time, thus reducing costs because time is a major factor that influences PI’s fees.

How to Choose the Right Private Investigator for Your Budget

1. Assess Your Needs vs. Budget 

When choosing a PI, try to achieve a balance between your needs and budget. For instance, if you have a low budget but high needs, you may end up with an unreliable PI that can cost you time, money, and legal issues.

Focus on hiring PIs that can effectively handle your case and satisfy your needs at an affordable price. If your estimated budget is limited, plan for additional funding to cover unexpected expenses. Also, determine whether you need a single private investigator or a team. While single private investigators may cost less to hire, a team of investigators could be more suitable for more complex private investigations.

2. Research the Right PIs 

With a lot of options available online, it may be difficult to identify a reliable private investigator suitable for your needs. Begin by conducting thorough online research on reputable investigators. Reputable private investigators typically have websites that detail the services they offer, along with testimonials from previous clients. 

Furthermore, get referrals from trusted sources such as lawyers, financial advisors, investigative associations, and other agencies.

3. Compare PI Rates

When comparing PI’s rates, the goal is not to find the cheapest option but to get a professional PI who can meet your needs at an affordable cost. You can obtain quotes from multiple experienced PIs to determine the one that fits your budget. Again, always inquire about any additional costs or retainer agreements to avoid surprises. 

Common Red Flags to Note When Hiring a Private Investigator

Common Red Flags to Note When Hiring a Private Investigator

Hiring a scammer or an unreliable investigator exposes you to various risks and dangers, such as privacy breaches, legal issues, fraudulent activities, and many more. However, some identifiable signs can protect you from such PIs. They include;

  • Failure to provide proof of licensing. All legitimate PIs should possess current investigation credentials and be licensed under state or local regulations. Check them up at your state’s licensing bureau. An example is the California Association of Licensed Investigators.
  • Making unrealistic promises. Investigations are often uncertain, so reliable PIs don’t usually guarantee specific outcomes.
  • Pressuring you to make quick decisions. A reliable PI should give you enough time for thorough consideration and decision-making.
  • Not having a physical office or online presence. 
  • Providing contracts with missing details and vague terms.
  • Refusing to provide testimonials or references from past customers.
  • Having poor or no reviews from previous clients.
  • Unprofessional behaviors like unprofessional language, rude behavior, or unwillingness to answer questions.


So, exactly how much does it cost to hire a private investigator? As discussed earlier, how much you pay for investigation services depends on various factors such as the nature of the case, experience of the investigator, location, and specific services.

Remember that their fees consist of hourly rates or flat fees, retainer fees, and other additional costs. Understanding these costs will help you avoid unnecessary surprises during investigations. They will also protect you from scammers and help you make informed decisions.

At On-Call Legal, we offer professional and reliable private investigation services tailored to your needs. Schedule a free consultation with us today to discuss your needs.

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