A WordPress Theme Buyer’s Guide: Custom vs Commercial – Which is Right for You?

In this last post of our three-part series exploring WordPress themes, we’ve created an informal WordPress Theme Buyer’s Guide to help you choose between a custom-developed WordPress theme or a commercial off-the-shelf WordPress theme.

If you missed our last two posts, you can read What is a WordPress Theme and How to Choose a WordPress Theme: Free vs Commercial.

By now you know what a theme is, and have likely played around with a few free themes on WordPress.org. But you’ve decided that they just don’t suit your needs, so you want to go a step further and either buy a commercial theme, or pay to have a custom theme built, and need help deciding which is right for you.

The house analogy:

Buying a commercial WordPress theme is like buying a house, while commissioning a custom WordPress theme is like building a house.

Buying a commercial WordPress theme is like buying a house

If you buy a house that is already built, it’s likely because:

  • It’s there. Nothing beats being able to see a house.
  • You can walk through and try it out.
  • You can visualize yourself living there if you bought it.
  • You’ll spot any big flaws or issues right away.
Commercial WordPress Themes at WooThemes
Commercial WordPress Themes at WooThemes

If minor things crop up a year or two later (like a leaky faucet, or changing carpet for wood floors), you wouldn’t think, “Oh! I made the wrong purchase because the floors are carpet!” and lament your decision to buy the house.

On the other hand, if you absolutely hated the second floor from the get-go, you wouldn’t buy the house. Since the second floor is already a part of the house, ripping it out and remodeling it would be more costly and time consuming than finding another house with a second floor that you do like.

Commercial WordPress themes are fairly similar: You can demo the theme, visualize how your website will look, and if there’s something missing that is a deal-breaker for you, just don’t buy the theme. If everything fits your site vision, you’ll probably go ahead with the purchase.

When shopping for a commercial theme for your site, look for one that gets as close to what you want as possible, and any flaws or missing functionality in the theme should be things that you can live with. You’re not looking for perfect; just good enough.

Commissioning a custom WordPress theme is like building a house

You may prefer to build your house from scratch because:

  • You have complete control of the design. (Build an oval house if you really want to.)
  • You can tailor the house to your needs and leave out stuff you don’t want.
  • You can ensure the quality of the entire build process.
  • Your house is 100% you. (No clones unless you really want a clone.)
Custom WordPress Theme
Custom WordPress Theme

If you have the money and you want things a particular way, then you are a house builder, not a house buyer. You build it the way you want it from the ground up, and tailor the house to your specific aesthetics and lifestyle. It represents you.

The downsides to a custom WordPress theme are that it takes time to build and it’s not move-in ready until it’s done. But when it is done, your new house will fit you like a glove and, to you, that’s well worth waiting for.

A custom WordPress theme can be designed to match your existing marketing efforts, offline presence, and can compliment and augment your business operations. You don’t want it to serve 90% of your needs. You want it to serve 100% and you’re willing to pay for that extra 10% because it makes a difference to you and your customers.

So which should I choose?

There are several factors to consider when deciding between a custom or commercial WordPress theme. Much of it depends on your own personality, skills, and business goals.

The following six steps can help you decide.

To play along, take out a piece of paper and mark if you choose A or B for each category.

Six Steps to Determining Whether You Need a Custom or Commercial WordPress Theme

Step 1: Determine Your Budget

Truly custom sites are not cheap. So if budget is tight, this factor alone could direct you to consider commercial themes. Good commercial themes can average between $60 – $90 per theme, while a custom WordPress theme can start between $1,000 – $4,000 depending on the theme developer and your site needs.

If this is simply out of your budget range, then your best bet is a commercial WordPress theme. If you have grand ideas about how your site will work, you also might want to make sure your expectations align with your budget.

Which are you?

A) I have a little budget
B) I have a moderate to big budget

Step 2: Represent Your Branding and Identity

While many commercial themes have built-in options that help you give your site a unique look by changing colors, fonts and layouts, it is still a commercial theme that anyone can buy. You choose your clothes to match your style and personality, and it helps everyone identify you. …Until you show up at a party with someone else wearing your exact same outfit.

If branding and identity are primary concerns of your website presence, then nine times out of ten you shouldn’t be using a commercial theme. A custom theme, in the hands of the right developer, will speak to your business’ unique selling proposition and to your primary customers. It’ll attract your perfect clients faster than a commercial theme with little personal branding and customization.

Which are you?

A) I’m okay with my site possibly looking like other sites
B) I really want to stand out and blow my competition away

Step 3: Determine Your Time Commitment

Whether a commercial or custom theme, both options require a time commitment. With a commercial theme, you’ll be in charge of installing your theme, getting all of your option settings just right, and adding content. And, while you may not need to know technical languages like CSS and PHP, you’ll need to be a little tech-savvy to install your theme and set up WordPress.

On the flip side, if you’re having a custom WordPress theme built, your time will be more focused on strategy, communication, and providing feedback to your development team. You don’t need to be a techie, but you want to find developers that can speak civilian. At some point, you should get WordPress training so you know how to manage your own site.

Which are you?

A) I’m a Do-It-Yourselfer and have lots of time
B) I don’t like doing it by myself and I should be spending my time on other things

Step 4: Integrating with Your Current Business Model

If your website needs to fully integrate with the way your business currently runs, a commercial theme is probably not the way to go. Your ability to customize a commercial theme to match your offline business operations is very limited without a developer’s help, and could be more costly in the long run than having a custom theme built specifically for your business.

For example, if you’re a staffing agency, and you have a particular way of processing job applications and posting new jobs, you want your website tailored to make posting jobs and collecting applications as easy as possible for your users and your staff.

Which are you?

A) I don’t need my website to match my business operations 100%
B) I need the website to improve my existing business and make things easier for me

Step 5: Streamline Code Efficiency

Some commercial themes are small and minimalistic while others are loaded with configuration options.  But there are downsides to having a lot of bells and whistles loaded in your theme, including:

  • Themes with tons of configuration options become very large and bloated. And as a general rule, you want to keep your theme as lean as possible for better load times and ease of use.
  • Themes that build in lots of functionality can trap you.  For example, we’ve seen themes that have a built-in custom post types for Portfolios or Staff, which add menu items to your WordPress Admin and allow you to easily add your work samples to a portfolio or new employees to your staff pages.  The problem is that, when you switch to a different theme, you can lose all of that functionality that is built into the theme.

If you’re using all features of a theme, then that’s great! But if you want your theme to only have things that you need and get distracted by all the excess features a theme may have, you might want something built custom.

Which are you?

A) I’m going to use everything in my commercial theme
B) I don’t like distractions and want a lean theme

Step 6: Getting Professional Feedback

I saved this step for last, but it is one of the most important factors in choosing a theme aside from cost.

Purchasing a theme gives you NO feedback. You can’t go to the theme developers and ask, “Hey, I used the green color palette available with your theme. Do you think that goes with my business?”

One of the benefits of having a design team build your custom site is that you have experts actually looking at your business, how to best represent it, and how to serve your customers in order to make you more money. Sure, you can ask your family and friends. If you have business partners that know a thing or two about effective websites, that’s a plus.

But there are things that go into building a site that only a professional would know or have experience with. And having a genuine expert design your site can give you invaluable feedback for your business.

Which are you?

A) I know what I want and don’t really need any feedback
B) I’d like input from a professional developer so that my website is the best there is

The Results

If four out of six of your answers were A then it’s obvious that a commercial theme is your best fit. If they were B then you probably would do well with a custom theme. :)

Can I buy a WordPress theme and hire a developer to customize it?

You might think that you might be saving time and money by “getting all the legwork” done with a commercial theme and then hiring someone to mold it to what you envision, but this can be a double-edged sword.

Yes, your theme is for the most part, done. But depending on the scope of your customizations, getting someone to tweak your theme might be just as costly as having it built from the ground up.

But I really want to customize my theme!

If you’re really set on this, do your homework first and see if the commercial theme you want is developer friendly. There are several themes out there that are meant for developers to easily use and extend. These themes might look more basic than other sites, but they’re meant to give developers more flexibility in customizing.

Better yet, ask the theme developers if they accept custom work.They know their theme the best, so for any customizations, it’d be better if they did them.

In most situations, we discourage buying a theme first with the intention of having a third-party developer do a major overhaul. There’s a high chance that your developer will end up spending just as much time customizing a commercial theme as they would if they built it from scratch.

Because the developer isn’t the original theme creator, and therefore won’t know the ins and outs of the theme, it can take longer to figure out how to work with the theme and can also be easier to accidentally break the site.

That’s it for our three-part series exploring WordPress themes! If you want to suggest our next series topic, feel free to leave a comment below. :)

3 Responses to “A WordPress Theme Buyer’s Guide: Custom vs Commercial – Which is Right for You?”

  1. Marty Diamond

    I have a slightly different take on Commercial vs. Custom Themes – Sure popular commercial themes are shared by a number of websites – and maybe to experienced WordPress developers the different websites look similar – but for most of us it’s hard to pick out a site and say “that’s a Studio Press Prose Theme” for example – without looking at the backend.

    For me the choice between custom and commercial isn’t so much a design decision as a functionality decision. Some functions are just not possible with a commercial theme, some, even if possible with a commercial theme are better suited for a custom theme.


    • Eric Amundson

      for most of us it’s hard to pick out a site and say “that’s a Studio Press Prose Theme” for example – without looking at the backend.

      I totally agree. It’s easy for developers, to learn the cues that tip us off to different themes, but the average person sees the destination, not the vehicle. How’s that for esoteric Monday metaphor? :)

      For me the choice between custom and commercial isn’t so much a design decision as a functionality decision.

      Good point. “Design” is definitely more important to certain types of sites, but usability and functionality are paramount.

      Some functions are just not possible with a commercial theme, some, even if possible with a commercial theme are better suited for a custom theme.

      As a shop doing custom WordPress development, we love being able to work with a customer to determine their needs and tailor a solution that fits them well.

      My single biggest complaint about many commercial themes: they build in too much functionality that should be part of a plugin instead. Functionality that, since it’s part of the theme, will go away when you switch themes.


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