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I've never done this before. And I'm a little afraid of getting hosed. I've heard good stories and bad, of quality problems, negotiation problems, language barriers, awkwardness with 12-hour difference in time zones. And also stories of great systems being produced on time within budget with no hassles (which is obviously what I hope for).
I appeal to ye who have done this before - what expectations should I have? What precautions should I take? Where should I start my search for a brilliant but cheap PHP programmer?
Top to botttom needs to be spelled out as they can't read your mind so there needs to be some time preparing for the job. You just can't say do this this is my idea it all has to be on paper so they can give you a qualified bid.
Most good outsourced website builds are the ones that took their time put it all on paper and the party doing the work can follow the movement of a customer through the site, and can programe in without having to having to wonder what he wants to do here,
Best advice I can give you be very detailed in the site workings putting all this information on paper, the more you put what you want and how you want it to be displayed the better you will be in getting the job done correctly the first time.
Be sure to research each programmer as much as you possibley can and never take anyones word on how brilliant they are.
Check out their portfolo and be sure they did actually create the website(s) that they claim to. (if the footer of the website has a different "designed by" then chances are it's not them)
There are alot of kids behind monitors promising great things, it's wiser to go with a company rather than one man band if you are working within a deadline.