Pitfalls to avoid when hiring a freelance developer

A laptop, a cup of coffee and a set of headphones on a small table

It’s no secret that web development is a very competitive market. As sites like Upwork, Fiverr and Freelancer become more popular, it becomes harder for freelancers to get noticed, which in turn makes it more difficult for clients to connect with genuine talent. This leads to some incredibly bad practices – fortunately, there are a few ways you can sort through the pack and identify qualified candidates for your project.

Five star ratings (and why they are meaningless)

Okay, ‘meaningless’ might be a strong term, but rating systems on sites like Upwork are inherently flawed. A reasonable person might assume the following:

  • 5 stars – perfect
  • 4 stars – very good
  • 3 stars – competent
  • 2 stars – below average
  • 1 star – terrible

Here’s what those ratings are usually interpreted as:

  • 5 stars – acceptable
  • Anything else – avoid like the plague

Of course, we’re not saying that constructive feedback isn’t useful. Let’s say you’re a client and a developer has just completed your job successfully, but it was delivered a little late and they didn’t let you know beforehand. You may assume it would be fine to give them 4.5 stars, with a comment that they could maybe work on their communication.

There’s a good chance that developer will message you and ask you to increase it to 5 stars.

It’s difficult to blame the freelancer in that situation, because anyone with a rating below 5 stars will often be passed over entirely, even though ratings are entirely subjective – some clients will happily award 5 stars for a completed job, whereas others may rate more realistically. Then there are freelancers who are completely new to a system and have no rating at all, despite being talented developers.

On such systems, rather than simply checking the star rating, we recommend looking at the comments that clients may have left – these tend to at least give some insight into the capabilities of the candidate. That said, a much better gauge of ability is how the developer initially responds to your job posting, which leads us to the next point…

A four and a half star rating
4.5 stars, every freelancer’s worst nightmare

Quoting before seeing the requirements

This one is less common on freelancing sites, where project budgets are often stated in the original posting. However on other platforms, such as Facebook groups, this is a common situation:

  1. The client posts their job, with little detail of the actual requirements.
  2. Twenty people comment saying they can do it for x amount.

As blindingly obvious as it may seem; it’s impossible to quote on a project without seeing the project’s requirements. In the ongoing quest to get noticed, many developers (and agencies) will leave a comment suggesting they can do it for what seems like an incredible price. These are the people you absolutely should avoid – either their price will change once the full requirements become clear, or they simply won’t be competent enough for the job.

A decent freelancer will want to discuss the project with you in more detail first. For complicated projects they may even suggest writing a specification document to make sure you are both on the same page. At the very least they should let you know how they plan to carry out your task.

Though it may be possible to give a rough estimate up front, there should always be a caveat saying it depends on the full requirements – this may seem like a longer way of doing things, but it will save multiple headaches later on.

A notebook on a desk, with a title written but no notes
The average brief provided by clients

Unrealistic promises

To be fair, the blame for this one falls partly on the clients. Of course the most well known example of this is when a business owner asks to be ranked on the first page of Google – something which at the very least is not going to be quick or cheap, if possible at all.

Again, in order to get the job, developers may agree to any requirements no matter how unrealistic they are. As tempting as it is to do that, a good candidate will manage the client’s expectations and come up with a more feasible solution.

Dollar bills planted in soil
We promise to make your money grow! Literally!


This is always going to be a delicate subject, but the simple fact is that you need to be able to communicate with the person handling your project. If you’re hiring someone whose first language is not the same as your own, make sure you talk to them in depth about the project. It should be fairly obvious early on if you understand each other – the last thing you want is to waste both parties time by having to explain things multiple times.

Likewise if your business or project is being marketed towards people in your home country, it may help if the person you hire is familiar with the culture of said country. This is especially true if you’re looking for someone with marketing or SEO skills.

A very messy desk
A typical freelancer workspace


Of course one of the main considerations when hiring a freelancer is how much they are going to cost. While a high price is obviously undesirable, sometimes a price that’s too low is also a cause for concern. If a price seems unrealistically low then it may be a sign that the developer’s skills are not enough to complete the project.

Stacks of pound coins
Too low a price can be just as bad as too high a price

The most important recommendation we can give when hiring a digital freelancer is to ask plenty of questions and make sure you are a good fit before committing to them. If you notice any of the red flags above, then it may be time to look elsewhere.

Also be aware of where you are hiring your freelancer from – be sure to only use reputable sites. Some good places to start looking include:

You may find that hiring an agency can alleviate some of the issues above, but we’ll discuss the benefits of that in a separate article. Of course, if you do hire a freelancer, you may also decide that you want to hire someone to manage them – something Black Void specialises in.