Custom WordPress Theme vs. Prebuilt WordPress Theme: What’s Right for You?

Drew Frantzenby Drew Frantzen

Whether you’re using WordPress to build a website from scratch or refreshing an existing web presence, you have a big decision to make. Should you build a custom WordPress theme, or should you buy a prebuilt WordPress theme?

The answer depends on your business, your goals and (to be quite frank) your budget. Here’s what you need to know about the debate between custom WordPress development and prebuilt WordPress themes.

All About Prebuilt WordPress Themes

Now, there are a bevy of wonderful options for core WordPress site templates to choose from. WordPress gives you a few to get started with, and while they are sparse, you could technically get by using them. (The price of a free WordPress theme is right, after all.) Just look at all those options!

Should you use a custom WordPress theme or a prebuilt WordPress theme?There is also a robust, and growing community of theme developers: designers/WordPress developers who have made their bones building “customizable” themes that are easy to use, a cinch to set up, and a joy to look at. (Envato’s ThemeForest is the biggest place to find these themes, most of which cost about 50 bucks.) Some are wonderful, and some are … not. 

Should I Buy a Prebuilt WordPress Theme?

There are a few inherent benefits to using a prefab WordPress theme, and No. 1 on that list is cost. Let’s face it: developers and designers are expensive, and going through the lengthy process of iterating designs and the agony of waiting for that website vision to come to life can add up to a big, fat “no thanks.” (What does a custom WordPress theme cost? Figure $5,000-$10,000 just for design and development, to say nothing of content, buildout, forms, etc.)

Let’s say you fancy yourself a writer, and you have a great logo, and some awesome photography. Well, you just need a theme to plug those elements into! Get building, you rockstar!

But before that, let’s talk about a few things.

What Does a WordPress Theme Really Cost?

When rubber meets road, prebuilt WordPress themes are pretty cost-effective. Some are free, and decent paid ones start around $50. I’ve filled my gas for more than that, and I sure as hell didn’t get a website out of the deal.

The issue with prebuilt WordPress themes isn’t the upfront cost (if you buy one). Most themes come with editors built-in for easy WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editing. Those editors have licenses. Now, some themes will have that license rolled into the price of the theme, but most don’t. So, in the case of a WPBakery (formerly Visual Composer), go ahead and add another $45 to your theme cost. And, it’s not just editors. Depending on the complexity of the theme, a lot of developers rely heavily on plugins (more on that in a bit) that require licenses of their own.

Other costs can get thrown into the mix as well: stock photography, font licensing, etc. Before you know it, that free or cheap WordPress theme has gone up in price dramatically. Which is to say nothing about when it comes time to get the theme to do what you need it to do …

A ‘Customizable’ Prebuilt WordPress Theme is not a Custom WordPress Theme

Most prebuilt WordPress themes come with a ton of bells and whistles. Layout options, navigation options, sidebar placement options, footer options – you name it, they’ve got it. ThemeForest developers want to give you a sea of different customization choices for you to try out and apply at will. But, even though you feel like you have an ocean of possibilities in front of you, there are always limits if you’re not building a WordPress theme from scratch.

For instance, we were working with a prebuilt theme that had a very robust blog offering. Sorting features galore! An awesome slider for the bottom of the homepage! Only problem? Some of the blog posts we had in mind sometimes had images associated with them, and sometimes didn’t. The theme gave us no options for what to do in that situation. So, we could kill all of the images, or come up with an image for EVERY blog post. Not only that, but because the way the blog was laid out, those images needed to be pretty big to accommodate the layout of the posts themselves. We were at an impasse. So, we contacted support, and …

Most Prebuilt WordPress Themes Don’t Really Offer Support

This is not a blanket statement for ALL theme developers. In fact, some theme developers will get down in the trenches with you and help you figure out your issue, one line of code at a time. For a fee, some will even help you develop custom modules to achieve the look and functionality you’re going for. But sometimes, those theme developers just don’t get back to you.

Faced with this quagmire of awesome, you can either try to get your hands dirty in the code, or hire a developer to help you. And take it from a developer: that’s not cheap. (By way of example, figure that adding functionality to a prebuilt WordPress theme will take a developer 4x as much time as building it in from scratch would have taken. In other words, if you have specific needs, a custom WordPress theme is probably the way to go.)

But this whole conversation defeats the purpose of WHY you bought the theme in the first place: ease of use! You wanted to just install this theme and get to work, not deal with support channels that may or may not be willing to get back to you. You also don’t want to have to install a bunch of third-party plugins as bandages to accomplish your goal. After all, this theme is light and nimble, and not reliant on plugins, right? Right?

Not Exactly.

There’s a great plugin out there for making animated, dynamic hero areas on your homepage called “Slider Revolution.” A few years back, hackers found a vulnerability in the plugin that allowed them access to websites and wreak havoc. Needless to say, that was a very long week for folks in the WordPress development industry. Why was it that bad? Because a substantial percentage of purchased themes include Slider Revolution. So, people who bought themes were all of a sudden bombarded by bots attacking their site every which-way possible. Long story short: Slider Revolution pushed out an update that solved the issue, and if people updated the plugin, all went back to normal.

I tell this cautionary tale for two reasons:

  1. PLEASE make sure your plugins are up-to-date if you end up using a prebuilt WordPress theme
  2. Slider Revolution is one of a vast many plugins that come with premade themes – both premium and free. This isn’t to say that all plugins are vulnerable to attacks, mind you. But I can say that you should never have too many add-ons doing the job that the template’s core functionality should be doing. I’ve seen premade themes with 30 different plugins – most of them completely and utterly unnecessary. Worst of all, plugins can slow down the performance of a website by adding a ton of JavaScript and calls to outside servers.

So if you go the cheap route in the case of custom WordPress theme vs. prebuilt WordPress theme, you may end up with a site that’s:

  • Actually pretty expensive
  • Not very customizable
  • Vulnerable to attack
  • Bogged down with unnecessary plugins

Should You Really Use a Prebuilt WordPress Theme?

The last part of the equation here is somewhat more abstract. How much time is this really going to take you, and what is that time worth to you?

Full confession: Altitude typically choses to build WordPress themes from scratch, but we have worked with prebuilt WordPress themes. Sometimes the client’s budget is already thin, and they just need a web presence to get themselves “out there.” Every time we’ve worked with a premade theme, it works out to be more expensive than starting from scratch and coding a custom WordPress theme. Some of that expense comes from the other items I’ve talked about: customization issues, too many Band-Aids, etc. The other factor though is the massive time-suck of getting things just right.

Now, Altitude has metrics to measure that time-vacuum, and that time is exponentially greater than the time it takes to get the site just right from the onset. More than that, when we develop a theme from scratch for a client, there’s very little that needs to be modified after-the-fact because we have properly planned for the site to grow and evolve. By methodically following a process, treating a site with care, and applying best practices, we have been able to develop custom WordPress themes at a lower cost than building on the bones of what another developer has crafted.

All of that said, buying a prebuilt WordPress theme may make sense for you. We get that. If that’s the case, do your research, and find what’s going to work best for you. Know that you’re going to have to put in the time to really get the theme to do your bidding, and be prepared to get frustrated. We can recommend certain themes: Avada, for one. X theme is also very robust, but still managed to make me want to punch a hole in the wall. But it may work for you!

And, if it doesn’t … well, give us a buzz. We’d love to build a custom WordPress theme just for you.