The first thing to decide is whether you should even hire a professional genealogist. It all depends on which you have more of: time or money.

If you've got more money, you'll probably want to hire someone who does ancestry research for a living to do it for you. Another reason you might hire a pro is that you don't know how to do the research yourself. You might not even know where to begin. Or, you may have traced your ancestors back as far as you can, and now, you're at a dead end, and you need help.

So how much do commercial genealogists charge? This is a sticky issue, because a lot of people don't really know what they're going to be paying for. This is why a free consultation before you hire a pro is a good idea. You'll find that you will typically be charged for things you might not be expecting. To start with, there's almost certainly an hourly fee, which is normally $40-$50, but can range all the way up to $200 in some cases. This is to cover the researcher's time, whether it is being spent on actual investigation or on organizing and evaluating the work that needs to be performed or has already been done. You will also be paying for things like:

  • Photocopies, whether its a library or a courthouse, either of documents or pictures, you can expect to pay $0.25 to $0.50 per copy.
  • Certificate fees. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, or just about any kind of official document that has been registered with an institution will require a small fee for a copy.
  • Research fees $35 to $60
  • Presentation Binders make everything seem more organized and professional, but expect to pay $10 to $15 for each one.
  • Scans $5 to $10 each, and normally they will be sent to you via email.
  • Postage or Shipping $7 to $25, depending on the service used and the weight, volume and distance.
  • Handling charges will probably run between $2 and $3 each time something is sent to you.
  • Search fees for libraries, courthouses, etc.
  • Long distance telephone calls. These can be out-of-town, out-of-state, or international.
  • Genealogy forms and supplies.
  • Travel expenses. You should insist that you be notified in advance of any out-of-town travel.
  • Correspondence. It takes time to compose a letter, so you should be prepared to pay for that time.
  • Translations. If your ancestor search leads to a foreign country, you can expect that the documents uncovered will be written in that language. Costs to translate these documents normally run between $60 and $80 per hour.
  • Preparation of reports. This is the end result of the research, in which the results are organized, documented and any conclusions explained to you. This can be as costly as it is valuable to your family history.
  • Preparation of biographies. Again, this is not only an assemblage of dates and other facts, but a fleshed-out history of your ancestor.
  • Preparation of family histories. Your family tree is a result of tying together the biographical data on all your ancestors into a single history.
  • Photography. This can include pictures of ancestors' homes, burial places or almost anything that is significant in their lives.
  • Bookkeeping.
  • Typing.
  • Genealogical database fees.
  • Genealogy website fees.

Most family history specialists insist on all, or at least 50% payment up front. This is not just to ensure that they get paid; it  also gives them predictable operating capital for doing their research. On occasion, some of them will agree to let you pay them upon completion of their research. This can be dangerous, If you don't set limits on the scope of the research and on the amount you are willing to pay, the final bill can be devastating. Most people simply can't afford unlimited research. Insist on a free consultation before you agree to anything. Make sure that you make it clear what you are willing to spend, and have everything put in writing so that everyone is clear on what you are going to be paying for.

There is another area of confusion that often comes up. When somebody pays a trained family history expert to research his or her family tree, they expect significant results. The problem is that the researcher is being paid for the time spent in searching the records, and not the amount of information he finds. It's only natural for the customer to expect results, when he has paid for the work to be done, but it doesn't work that way. No one can possibly know in advance how easy or hard it will be to locate members of your family tree. Sometimes, a surname is so common that it is difficult or impossible to determine which of the people who found is your ancestor. Some records are just not available. So many things can affect the results that are turned up, but the research still has to be paid for.

What does all this add up to, in terms of your wallet? Sure, the proper answer is, it depends-on how much time and effort is required, how much travel and other expenses total, and what you've set as your financial limit beforehand. However, if you want a ballpark figure to see if you can even afford to hire a pro, look at $650 to $1,000 to start.