8 Steps to Taking Over an Existing WordPress Website

8 Steps to Taking Over an Existing WordPress Website

As a WordPress freelancer or agency, you will have two types of clients: Those who need a new site, and those who have a site that needs management. It is this second type of client that needs a special type of attention.

On the surface, an existing site in need of maintenance is a gift. No development or build needed; just check the dials on schedule, be ready if anything goes awry, and bill the client. Well, of course, this is WordPress, and although we love it, it is never quite that easy. A site you didn’t build is an unknown entity, and most clients have very little knowledge of their site “under the hood,” as long it appears to be working.

Go through the following intake checklist when accepting management of WordPress sites you didn’t build. These steps are designed to help you evaluate the site quickly, so you don’t spend too much time getting up and running.

On-boarding new clients
Don’t miss a thing with these 8-steps to taking over an existing WordPress site.

1. Access:

  • WordPress dashboard: Obviously, you will need administrator-level access to the site’s WordPress dashboard. Once in, remove access for the previous developer/site owner.
  • Hosting access, FTP/sFTP, and cPanel, if used.
  • CDN access, if used: For more about whether a CDN is necessary, read our post.
  • Domain registrar: This may or may not be necessary, depending on the level of management you are providing. If your contract is to simply keep everything up-to-date and running efficiently, then you shouldn’t need this. If, however, you will move the hosting or have other tasks that require domain access, then get it.
  • Passwords: Once you have checked all of the above boxes, change all of their passwords and keep a secure record of the new ones. This removes access any prior site managers had.

2. Backup Solution:

  • Does it have one? If not, adding a backup solution is a top priority before you do anything past logging in and updating the password. Then, create an initial backup for yourself before making any other changes.
  • If it already has a backup solution, where do the backup files go? They may go to your predecessor, to the client — who generally has little knowledge of how to retrieve them — or to the site’s hosting account. Make sure the files go to a place you can access easily and quickly, if needed.
  • If the existing backup solution is a premium add-on, check whether the account is paid by your client or your predecessor. If it’s your predecessor’s account, see list item 6.

3. Security Protocol:

  • Does it have one? If not, adding a security plugin is priority number two. Once configured, run a diagnostic on the site to be sure you are starting out in a healthy environment. Also consider running through this 32-part security checklist. If the diagnostic turns up unhealthy code, you should address that with the client ASAP. Demonstrate how the issue started on someone else’s watch, and decide how to proceed. If you will dig into the fix yourself, but you’re not well-versed with how, read this to get started.
  • If the site already has a security protocol, what email address is receiving alerts? Likely, it is not the client. Be sure to update this so you get the notifications.
  • If the existing security plugin is a premium add-on, check whether the account is paid by your client or your predecessor. If it’s your predecessor’s account, see list item 6.

4. General Site Contact and Admin-Level Users:


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  • Check the site’s Settings to see what email address is listed as a general point of contact. If it’s the client, you can likely leave it alone. If it is another service provider, then the client likely expects you to be the point of contact for any site issues that may arise. If this is part of your service contract, then put your email address here. If not, discuss with your client.
  • Look for the previous WordPress contractor among the list of Users, especially in the Admin tier, and remove their access.

5. Check for an SSL certificate:

  • Does it have one? If not, add it.

6. Premium Content with Renewable Licenses:

  • Take inventory of every premium feature of this WordPress build. The developer who built the site might have issued an itemized invoice to the client with these items listed, but chances are good that such a list doesn’t exist.
  • Ask the client which parts they paid for. If they only ever paid the developer, then all of the premium licenses lie with her.
  • Some add-ons are not premium, but still require accounts to grant API keys and updates. Take inventory of these, too, and get access to them.
  • Pour over your list of licenses and add-on accounts. If they are all controlled by the client, then you can proceed to the next step. If the previous developer controls any accounts, you may need to contact them, if possible. If this is not possible, the premium add-ons may need to be re-purchased (if not right away, then eventually). Talk with your client about how to purchase, and adjust your costs accordingly.

7. Management Plugin:

  • Locate and remove any existing management plugin. It might be embedded in the WordPress install from a host, or added as a plugin. (Note: You can leave this alone if you have full access to hosting, and hosting isn’t changing.)
  • Install your preferred management plugin.
  • If you don’t yet use this time-saving solution, here’s a primer on site management plugins.
    Consider WPMU DEV Dashboard, a site management solution, which integrates with The Hub for one-stop management of all of the sites you oversee.

8. Start to Manage:

  • Review this excellent post that will walk you through site management best practices going forward, once you are sure the WordPress site now in your charge is clean, efficient, and up to your professional standards.

Opportunities Beyond Management

As you go through the above checklist, especially after reading the post linked in step 8, you are likely to find new opportunities for services you can offer that go beyond mere updates. For example, are the images optimized? How fast do the pages load? Are the pages SEO optimized? Take a stroll through our list of site performance optimization plugins, including Hummingbird, Smush, and SmartCrawl for expanded services you can offer your maintenance clients that won’t require you to add new skill sets.

Want to make your onboarding process more efficient? Learn how to automate with Forminator.

Taking over the management of an existing WordPress site can be a great source of regular income for a freelancer or small agency. Just make sure to vet the site according to the checklist to avoid any nasty surprises that can cost you time and money down the road.

What additional tasks do you perform when taking over existing WordPress websites? What is the strangest configuration you’ve come across?

Allison Eckel

Allison Eckel Allison is an accomplished communications strategist and team leader with demonstrated successes in guiding cross-functional teams through improvements in internal operations and growth initiatives. She creates and executes communications and marketing strategies that align with corporate and stakeholder goals, and manages a tech stack that includes solutions for marketing automation, project management, and customer/donor relationship management.