Private Investigator Business Idea

A Day in the Life - Private Detective/Investigator

CareerRx 3/24/2008

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Business Summary:

Private investigators, or private detectives, are paid by clients to obtain specific information wanted or needed by the client. Some P.I.’s are employed by attorneys’ offices, and some work in the risk management departments of large retail stores. Still others work for insurance companies. In these positions, investigators are often required to do surveillance work to help their clients solve cases or obtain evidence against alleged wrongdoers. As part of their work, they may have to conduct interviews, obtain documents, trace missing persons, and take surreptitious photos.

An estimated 30% of all P.I.’s are self-employed. If you think this might be a good start-up business for you (and both men and women enter this field), keep in mind the fact that most states require you to obtain a license in order to work as a private detective. You don’t necessarily have to have a college degree, but some coursework in criminal justice or pre-law would be helpful. Even better would be an internship with a law firm or a large insurance company. You’ll probably spend a lot of time working nights and week-ends, but if you enjoy solving problems and getting to the crux of a case, you’ll find working as a private investigator to be just the job for you.

Start Up Cost: $2,000 – $8,000

Can Be Home Based?: Yes

Can Be Operated Part Time?: Yes

Skills Required:

Some schools exist just for training private investigators, and some community colleges offer two-year programs. However, more important than academics is the intuitive skill of the investigator. You’ll need a certain amount of creativity in your approach to gaining some of the information your clients want. If you have some background in police work, law, or insurance work, you’ll have a head start on knowing how to obtain certain types of information.

Most of the fifty states require private investigators to be licensed. You can find out quickly by going to your state’s website and inquiring about licensed occupations. In addition, most people who enter this field have a high level of self-confidence and find it easy to talk to strangers. This skill is necessary because a lot of your work will require you to try to obtain information from people who may not want to give it out.

How Much Can You Earn:

The private detective field is quite competitive, due to the many police officers and military personnel who retire at a young age and then start a new career. Once you have some experience under your belt, and you’ve made some helpful contacts, you can expect to charge from $40 to $100 per hour, with the average hourly rate being about $55. If you work hard, have good skills and hire additional investigators, you might find your annual earnings to be in the low six figures.

Understanding Customers:

All of your customers will come to you in order to obtain information. Some clients may be interested in hiring you as an independent contractor to do workers compensation investigations. Small attorney firms may want you to work on a specific case until it is resolved. A wife may ask you to check on her husband to determine if he is behaving badly. Basically, they all want you to provide results as soon as possible. Your ability to do so will help to establish your reputation in the community.

Marketing Strategy:

First, let all your contacts know that you are starting up a business as a private investigator. Send all of them, including family, friends, and past business associates, a letter containing all of your pertinent information. Be sure to add a handwritten note. Send out letters with brochures enclosed to attorneys, insurance companies, banks, and risk management groups. Get your name out by advertising in the local newspapers, and any legal publications in the nearest large city. When you can afford to do so, start a simple website. You may want to offer your services as an instructor in your community’s adult education department, or as an adjunct criminal justice lecturer.


If you haven’t worked in a field where you’ve done some investigations work, you’ll need to prepare well for your licensing exam. Most states can refer you to courses that will help you cram for the examination. You’ll find them on the Internet, too. You’ll need a professional office – if it’s located in your home, it should have a separate entrance. Imagine a Spartan version of an attorney’s office, complete with computer, appropriate software, copier / fax machine, printer, tape recorder, small digital camera, and camcorder. A conference table and chairs will help when displaying photos or documents to your clients.

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