Difference Between Prebuilt Vs Custom Themes

Lately I’ve been working on building affordable WordPress sites as a commercial business. While I’ve been building sites since 1999 and have launched multiple sites for friends and family, I have not actually done this commercially.

And being a certified Ruby on Rails developer due to MaGIC and NextAcademy‘s collaborated boot camp, I could have built Ruby on Rails based websites by January 2016. Having said that, not many people could afford a full-fledged web application and thus the low price of launching a site with WordPress might appeal to many.

But the WordPress scene is confusing, especially with the influx of multipurpose themes that has dozens if not a hundred-odd templates on ThemeForest. Majority of these themes comes with unmaintainable code. This becomes more obvious once I became better with object-oriented PHP (thanks to LaraCasts). And that’s why I’ve titled today’s blog post on the difference between prebuilt vs custom WordPress themes (or the difference between turnkey and bespoke WordPress development).

Prebuilt vs Custom WordPress Themes : An Introduction

I was once a WordPress power user. Running my online store as an early adopter of WooCommerce, I used to love prebuilt WordPress themes. I could even hack them to make them look the way I want to. Compared to Drupal, WordPress was easier and did not break the site upon major version upgrades. And prebuilt themes looked beautiful while being cheap.

But my disconnect came when I found the themes I bought didn’t work with a number of official WooCommerce extensions.

‘Oh, we just don’t support those extensions’, was the common excuse given.

Some would even ask me to pay to integrate these extensions to their badly built WordPress themes. And it didn’t help that official WooCommerce themes sold on WooThemes.com didn’t really look great themselves.

It was frustrating. We either had a choice of well-built but not great looking WooCommerce themes or great looking themes that don’t work with some of the most popular premium plugins.

After a tough but rewarding period of learning web development (it’s a never-ending rabbit hole), I found that these themes don’t use proper WordPress/WooCommerce hooks. These makes some of the most popular themes on ThemeForest, beautiful but badly coded. And that’s why I’m writing this piece of article today.

Prebuilt vs Custom WordPress Themes : Should I use a Prebuilt theme?

While a lot of prebuilt themes today are over-bloated with features and templates, well-built prebuilt themes still exist. For our side, we either use StudioPressGenesis or Underscores as our base or do minor customisation to commercial themes based on Underscores. This enables us to quickly deliver an easily maintainable theme to the developer after us, while cutting down on development time. This saves you money and ensures a blazingly fast WordPress theme.

But in general, why should you use a prebuilt theme? We summarise it into three main points, Budget, Time and Validation.

I) Budget

When you are on a budget, a prebuilt theme can do wonders. Of course, not all prebuilt themes are the same and do get a proper developer who can help make minor CSS changes to your theme

II) Time

If you are running short of time to launch a site, don’t hire developers for a custom-built site as it’ll take weeks if not months to launch. You can easily launch a website with a prebuilt theme in days

III) Validation

When your business is new, you might just want a website to launch quickly to confirm your business idea. Once proven, you can then iterate later when you are more certain. This also helps you have a longer runway.

Prebuilt vs Custom WordPress Themes : When do you need a custom WordPress theme?

While using a well-built prebuilt theme helps you launch fast, at times you might need a custom WordPress theme. We’ve summarised it into three main points, Branding, SEO and Extensibility.

I) Branding

Most businesses often undervalue branding in their effort to build their business. However, proper branding enables your customers to recognise you from afar. While you can easily build a site using prebuilt themes, nothing helps your marketing efforts more than a custom-built WordPress site built with your brand in mind.

It would be folly to spend so much on your trade show booth, only to have your site looking exactly like your competitors’, all because you decided to go with some prebuilt theme instead of custom building one.


Do you know that your website’s loading speed with affect its SEO? While prebuilt multipurpose themes seems to do everything you need, they tend to have much more lines of code to enable it be everything to everyone. This causes your site to load larger files when a visitor access, hampering your SEO efforts and ultimately, hindering your online success.

III) Extensibility

I’ve taken a look at hundreds of prebuilt themes and sad to say, only a minority are well coded. Some really popular ones are not well coded, making it expensive for developers to jump in to make changes to. Rather, at times it would make more sense for you to custom build the theme than to try customising it, as the cost of extending a badly coded theme is expensive.

Furthermore, most popular prebuilt WordPress themes use Visual Composer, a cheap but yet powerful page builder. However, it causes a lot of problems when you disable it. It leaves residues of shortcodes that litters across multiple pages that you’ve installed it on. If you were to one day switch to a different page builder, you would need to clean up pages upon pages of shortcode hell.

Visual Composer and a number of other page builders don’t comply with proper WordPress coding standards and have a high chance of not working with certain plugins. This limits your site’s extensibility.

Prebuilt vs Custom WordPress Themes : Price differences

It often surprises people when they hear the differences in pricing for prebuilt vs custom WordPress theme. Why are custom WordPress themes so pricey? Are they really worth the money? Or should you just go with a prebuilt theme?

You see, the greatest analogy I could give you on the differences between prebuilt and custom WordPress themes is the story of buying a MPV (say, a Toyota Sienta). The MPV would be priced differently based on the amount of accessories or trim that you’ve chosen, that’s expected. But how about if you need some customisation? So let’s break it down.

  • Brand new Toyota Sienta in Malaysia – RM 92k
  • Brand new Sienta with 16 inch rims – RM 98k
  • Brand new Sienta with 16″ rims and tinting – RM 100k

So far so good. There isn’t much price differences because the changes are cosmetic. What if we go for more customisation?

  • Brand new Sienta with an extended length of one meter – RM 250k
  • Brand new Sienta with a Toyota Supra engine swap – RM 200k (plus you need to change the brakes and suspensions too)
  • Brand new Sienta with a custom built engine – RM 1 – 2 million
  • Brand new Sienta with wings to fly – ?
  • Brand new Sienta that can autodrive – ?

Prebuilt vs Custom WordPress Themes : Our Prices

You see, prebuilt WordPress themes are sold thousands of times. This enables the WordPress theme developers to price it affordably. Whereas a custom WordPress theme requires time and effort to be crafted to your needs.

In order to build you a bespoke theme, we first need to first understand your business. Sketches of how the site would look would then be done before we work on the wire framing and design. This design would then be adjusted to make sure it fits your needs before we then incorporate it into the bespoke theme.

We will then go ahead to build the theme using best coding practices as well as making it easy to maintain. This includes proper code design as well as the use of WordPress Customizer when possible.

Overall, a bespoke / custom WordPress theme would take somewhere between three to six weeks and cost somewhere between USD 3k – 15k. If there’s ecommerce involved, the theme would be somewhere between USD 6k – 20k.

But if you are on a budget, we have a basic WordPress theme package that involves customisation of the colour, fonts and width for only USD 299. Further custom work would be charged by an hourly rate of USD 50/hour.

Here’s our rates in an easy to read table.

[table id=9 /]


A custom WordPress theme might not be suitable for you. For most of our clients, we advice them to start with a well coded prebuilt theme that can then be extended when you are more convinced of your business model.

If you need assistance, contact us and we’ll be glad to assist you.

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Leo Koo
I run a small agency building and maintaining turnkey and bespoke WordPress sites. I also review WordPress plugins and digital marketing tools while running this site and the WPStarters Facebook Group. Do swing by and say hi :)
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