How Much Can You Earn as a PI? The Real Salary Stats (2024)

So you want to become a private investigator? Before you grab that trench coat and magnifying glass, it’s important to understand what the job entails and the earning potential. As a private investigator, you’ll take on covert operations, conduct interviews, research backgrounds, and engage in surveillance to uncover facts and information. It’s an exciting career path for natural detectives with an aptitude for investigation.

But can you really make a living as a gumshoe? What is the average salary for private investigators in the United States? Let’s take a look at the compensation data and career outlook for PIs to get a clear picture.

 

Typical Salary Range

A female investigator takes a photograph behind a parked car.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual wage for U.S. private investigators was $54,130 as of May 2020. This means half of all private eyes earned more than this, while the other half earned less.

The lowest 10% of private detectives made less than $30,300 per year, while the highest 10% earned upwards of $96,960 annually. Most salaries ranged between $35,000 and $80,000 when just starting out.

With experience, many increase their compensation into the $50,000 to $100,000+ range. However, earnings can vary substantially based on these key factors:

  • Location – Rates are higher in major metro areas and coastal regions
  • Specialty – Corporate, legal, and financial investigations pay more
  • Reputation – Well-known PIs can charge higher fees
  • Self-employment – Owning your own agency has more earning potential

 

So while the BLS number provides a good baseline, your actual income may end up below or above that, depending on your skills, clients, and business model.

 

Salary by State

Where you live and operate can impact salary, similar to other careers. States with a higher cost of living or greater demand for PIs tend to yield higher wages.

Here are the top 5 highest paying states for private investigators according to BLS data:

  1. California – $69,560
  2. Florida – $60,830
  3. Texas – $60,730
  4. New York – $59,640
  5. Illinois – $57,990

 

Large states like California, Texas, and New York offer lots of populous cities with opportunities for PIs. Florida’s massive population of retirees and vacationers drives background checks and domestic cases.

On the lower end, these states report the lowest average salaries:

  1. Kentucky – $34,310
  2. Kansas – $39,130
  3. Alabama – $39,600
  4. South Dakota – $39,850
  5. Idaho – $40,250

 

More rural states have less demand and cases that let private detectives command high fees. The cost of living is also lower, contributing to reduced wages.

Within each state, you’ll also find major variability between large metropolitan areas, smaller cities, and rural regions when it comes to PI pay.

 

Industries and Earning Potential

a magnifying glass decorated with many icons

Private investigators work across a diverse range of industries and niche specialties. Your skills, reputation, and focus area can greatly influence wages.

Some top-paying industries for private investigators include:

  • Finance and Insurance – Conducting insurance fraud investigations or background checks for financial institutions. Median Salary: $70,860
  • Legal Services – Working on behalf of law firms on civil and criminal cases. Median Salary: $67,430
  • Management and Consulting Services – Conducting corporate investigations of theft, fraud, or harassment. Median Salary: $66,390
  • Government – Federal investigator or detective roles. Median Salary: $60,100

 

Types of work within private investigation that potentially yield higher fees include:

  • Corporate Investigations – Intellectual property theft, embezzlement, executive protection.
  • Legal Investigating – Supporting criminal and civil case preparations.
  • Financial Investigation – Insurance fraud, asset searches, background checks.

 

Whereas lower-paying PI work includes:

 

By developing expertise in high-demand, complex investigation work, you can command rates on the higher end of the pay scale.

 

Experience Levels

Your years on the job also correlate strongly with increased salaries. Here’s a look at the average private investigator salary based on experience:

  • Entry-Level (0-5 years): $35,000 – $50,000
  • Mid-Career (5-10 years): $50,000 – $75,000
  • Experienced (10-20 years): $75,000 – $100,000+
  • Late-Career (20+ years): $100,000+

 

Entry-level investigators in the early years of their career tend to make less as they build skills and a client base. Once established, it’s common to see salaries climb steadily over time with more experience.

Many successful private investigators with decades in the business eventually open their own firms or agencies to take earnings to the highest levels. The most renowned PIs can charge premium rates given their extensive expertise.

 

Self-Employment Potential

a detective taking pictures from his car

A major factor that can influence salary is being self-employed versus working for an agency.

According to the BLS, about 28% of private detectives are self-employed and able to set their own rates. This gives major earning potential but less stability.

Being an agency owner or independent PI allows you to:

  • Set your own fees and hourly/project rates
  • Build direct relationships with clients
  • Choose the cases and projects you take on
  • Deduct business expenses to reduce taxable income
  • Generate revenue from staff investigators you hire

 

The tradeoff is you’ll lack steady guaranteed income, company benefits, and have more overhead expenses. So self-employment offers high reward but also higher risk.

For those looking for more stability, working for an established private investigation firm can provide:

  • Consistent wages not tied to caseloads
  • Employer-provided benefits like health insurance
  • Ongoing training and development
  • Less financial risk but ceiling on earnings

 

So weigh your risk appetite when deciding between being a salaried investigator or hanging your own shingle.

 

Job Outlook for Private Investigators

Beyond current salary ranges, it’s helpful to look at future job growth to gauge stability and demand. The BLS predicts PI careers will expand by 8% from 2020-2030, faster than the average across most occupations.

Driving this growth is:

  • Increased need to conduct background checks and verify information digitally
  • Continued concerns over security threats, theft, and cyber crime
  • Legal disputes and civil cases requiring evidence
  • Businesses leveraging corporate investigators

 

PI services will be needed from individuals, law firms, corporations, insurance agencies, and government entities alike.

The top industries expected to drive new PI jobs are:

  • Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services – 14% increase
  • Government – 9% increase
  • Legal Services – 7% increase
  • Finance and Insurance – 6% increase

 

By specializing in these growing sectors and offering niche expertise, you can position yourself for job stability and higher pay over your career span.

Just be aware the field remains competitive, even with projected growth. Standing out requires proven success, impeccable ethics, and unique skills.

 

Boosting Your Private Investigator Salary

a detective reviewing paperwork

Want to earn more as a private eye? Here are tips to grow your compensation:

  • Get licensed – Obtaining a PI license gives you more credibility.
  • Pursue specialty training – Develop expertise in a niche like forensic accounting.
  • Earn professional certifications – Designations like CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) add qualifications.
  • Build a strong network – Referrals from happy clients and attorneys pay off.
  • Focus on high-value services – Corporate, legal, and financial investigating tend to be most lucrative.
  • Consider self-employment – Operating independently allows setting your own rates.
  • Negotiate rates strategically – Research competitors and highlight specialized skills.
  • Develop your reputation – Be known for dependability, integrity, and discretion.

 

The Rewards Beyond the Paycheck

Clearly as a private investigator, you can earn a good living, especially as you gain experience. But the job offers meaningful rewards beyond just the paycheck too.

Every day you’ll tackle new challenges and puzzles, employing your research savvy, analytical abilities, and knack for connecting clues. You’ll uncover truths, provide peace of mind, and deliver justice for your clients.

With a job this exciting, unpredictable, and impactful – who cares about counting every dollar in the paycheck? Of course the money matters, but being a real-life Sherlock and helping people is what really seals the deal.

So for those intrigued by the calling of private investigation, don’t let the salary be the deciding factor. There are plenty of financial and emotional rewards to be gained from this career path if you have the skill and determination. Sharpen your eye for detail and get sleuthing!

FAQ's

What education do you need to become a private investigator?
A high school diploma is the minimum education required. Many complete a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, or take investigatory training courses to build skills. Licensure may also require some college credits.
Not necessarily. Entry-level investigators can learn on the job. But related experience in areas like law enforcement, research, insurance, or security can be very helpful to build investigatory skills.
Working for an established agency provides training and steady income as you gain experience. Later in your career, you may opt to go solo for more control and higher earning potential.
It depends on your specialty and clientele. Surveillance, interviews, and information gathering could require frequent local travel. Some cases may involve occasional overnights or longer trips.
Individuals for domestic cases, attorneys for civil/criminal cases, insurance companies for fraud claims, businesses for internal theft or liability issues, and media/journalists investigating stories.
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