How much should a custom WordPress website cost?

The cost of a custom WordPress website

Eventually, you have to talk about cost.

If you're a consultant, as I am, you've been asked how much your services cost. And you have to make some decisions:

  • What services am I providing?
  • How many hours do I think this will take me?
  • How much is this worth to the client, from a business perspective?
  • Does the client have money? How about a business plan?
  • Should I charge hourly or by project?
  • Is this a one off thing or is there potential for a long term relationship?
  • How busy am I? Do I need this job? Do I want it?

These questions are important. The answers are important. Gauging the client is important. Every interaction I have with the client helps me learn more about them and the project at hand, and affects what the cost will be.

Cost often also depends on market and location. I'm assuming I'm talking to an American audience in US dollars. What follows may translate well or poorly depending on your location and culture.

How much should a custom WordPress website cost?

I've built websites or been a part of website projects — all on WordPress — that have ranged in cost from under $1,000 to over $100,000, for complete websites.

So in short: it always depends.

This is why we can't ballpark it for you.

And as Chris notes in that link, “Most people’s budget is 2-3 times smaller than their desires or expectations.” And if I ballpark anything specific it's highly unlikely both of us will be happy once it's all said and done.

A proper estimate costs money

An estimate takes time. Whether that time is in a paid discovery or a sunk cost I (the consultant) bring on myself is a different matter. Either way, estimates are expensive because they are time consuming. And I promise you if I spend a week on an estimate or proposal I'm putting that cost into the proposal, somewhere.

Who is the consultant?

There are some broad brush common price ranges I can establish for you. I'm trying my best to be specific with this post, though that's really, really hard.

Let's start by segmenting based on who you are working with. Basically, working with a freelancer will normally be cheaper than working with an agency.

Agencies have more overhead, more padding built in, are more worried about cash flow, and generally just tend to be a bit more expensive.

If you work with an agency, the risk of them falling off the map is generally a little lower, but they probably move a little slower too. And you'll often have to deal with changing contacts as the project progresses (from sales to design to development to maintenance).

If you work with a freelancer, your risks are a bit higher they'll disappear someday. It means vetting them is even more important than with an agency. But they also tend to move quickly and don't juggle as many projects at once. You also have the benefit of working with (typically) one person that knows everything about your project, and you don't feel like you're constantly getting bounced around contacts like can happen in some agencies.

It's possible to have a great relationship with a freelancer or with an agency. I think it typically depends on the client's mentality and requirements as to determining which route is better.

In general, freelancers are great for jobs that fit the following criteria:

  • The job is small enough for one person to handle the entire thing (note, most projects fit this category)
  • The timeline is tight, and you want them to start quickly
  • Communication channels don't have to be too formal
  • Big contractor agreements don't have to be signed and the contractor doesn't need insurance or other common big-business requirements

In general, agencies are better for the following criteria:

  • You don't want to risk your consultant disappearing
  • You're okay with a project structure you don't define (most agencies have established processes)
  • You're okay with a multi-month project (I'd say most agency projects last between 2-6 months)
  • You don't mind waiting until you can be fit into their schedule to start (often 30-90 days… but great freelancers often have significant backlogs too)
  • You want a dedicated project manager (some freelancers are phone-call averse)
  • Your project will require multiple full-time folks working simultaneously, either due to deadlines or huge project scope

Freelancer rates vs Agency rates

I don't want to get into hourly versus project billing. But either way, for most projects the consultant has to estimate the time it's going to take them to build, and charge at least that. So I'm going to assume the consultant is not charging an amount enormously higher than their cost just because it's worth it to the client.

Whether the consultant is an agency or a freelancer, I'm going to assume 50% “billable” or productive time. In other words, I'm only figuring that half of anyone's day is spent actually building what's being paid for. I think this is a good goal for most and also quite achievable with discipline. Also, I think that number is probably higher for your average web-worker in an agency, but still works as an average because managers and PMs typically won't hit 50%, if their time is counted into direct costs at all.

I'm also going to assume the freelancer is billing an end client, not subcontracting to an agency where their costs go considerably down due to less PM and consistent work.

Finally, I'm utilizing these hourly rates as if it's for billable work and known costs. So, if the rate is $100 per hour and the design will take 50 hours and the development will take 50 hours and you build in 25 hours for project management, it would be 125 hours and the project would cost $12,500. Profits, overhead, and everything else are “built in” to the internal hourly rate — just like if someone were billing the client hourly for the work.

Freelancer rates

  • Beginner freelancer: $25-$40 per hour
  • Intermediate freelancer: $40-75 per hour
  • Good, experienced freelancer: $75 – $125 per hour
  • Excellent, in demand freelancer: $125 – $175 per hour
  • Specialist, best in industry: $175 – $400 per hour

Agency rates

  • Small market general agency: $50 – $75 per hour
  • Medium market general agency: $75 – $115 per hour
  • Medium market reputable agency: $115 – $150 per hour
  • Medium market high end agency: $150 – $175 per hour
  • Medium market best in industry agency: $175 – $225 per hour
  • Large market reputable agency: $150 – $175 per hour
  • Large market high end agency: $175 – $250 per hour
  • Large market best in industry agency: $200 – $275 per hour

When I say “best in industry”, I'm referring to an agency that's made a name for itself in regard to something specific — maybe high-end WordPress websites, or Ruby on Rails, or websites for newspapers, or eCommerce. It depends.

When I talk market size, I mean the difference between working in big towns or small cities (small market), cities that are thriving but not huge like my own Birmingham, AL (medium market), or the type of city that's got pro sports teams and 1 million+ people (large market). Not listed, but notable, are the mega-markets like New York and San Francisco types. I'm sure you can pay as much as you desire for services in such places.

Also, these are all guesses.

Please, please, please don't take these guesses as offense. I'm purely trying to show you a picture of the landscape, as best as I see it.

I talk to a lot of people. I read a ton. I listen to a ton of podcasts. I go to conferences. But I've only worked at two agencies and freelanced on the side. But I think I have a decent take on the market, and I think this is a practical range to work with.

Consultants break their own rules all the time

Freelancers and agencies also break their own rules all the time. A great example of this is when you get an inquiry from a big brand.

If it's a competitive bid, and a consultant wants that brand as a featured client, they could easily drop their rates by a third or more to get it — with the hope that that brand will make other folks want to work with them down the road. Sometimes this is effective, sometimes it's a terrible idea. My guess is that referrals can come from anywhere, and generally bending your rates for a brand name is a bad idea; I also want to do it in the heat of the moment all the time.

There are other times consultants break their own rules or don't follow their internal rates. Consultants may charge less if it's a client they work with over and over and know the true costs better. Consultants may charge less for non-profit organizations, or may charge less if a retainer is promised, or may charge less if work is slow, or may charge less if they get emotionally invested in the bid. The list of ways to break the guidelines goes on and on.

Who is the client?

The client is a huge factor in price. In short, if I gauge that a client is going to be difficult, it affects the client multiplier I put on the overall project cost.

What is a client multiplier?

Well, I'm glad you asked! Over a number of years, I've started to pick up on client qualities that end up costing money. Here are some things that can get expensive:

  • The client doesn't have a single point of contact (multiple people always have to be looped into communication)
  • The client contact has to get some form of committee approval
  • The client contact isn't decisive, or doesn't seem capable to play the “consultant advocate” role well internally
  • The client has a lot of red tape for decision making
  • The client's payment schedules are really bad (as in, I might not get paid for work I've done for months)
  • The client contact is prone to huge email threads over small issues
  • The client contact wants daily/frequent phone calls or meetings
  • The client doesn't have a clear business plan, and will require a lot of advising

These are mostly people and organizational things. They have little to do with the actual project.

Let's say the work for a project will be around $20,000. I usually add up these client qualities that could get costly from a project management perspective and apply them to the overall cost.

In a $20,000 project, it's not uncommon for $5,000 of that to be project management costs. If I decide there are enough concerns to warrant 50% higher PM costs, the project gets a $2,500, or 12.5%, increase in overall project cost.

Looking for client qualities that trigger higher costs is important as a consultant. And for potential clients out there: keep in mind that your qualities (organizational and behavioral) affect your consultant's price.

Costs ranges for different types of websites

There are many types of websites, and each has their own potential costs associated.

The many different types of websites

I tend to rank sites in complexity like this:

  • Simple blog (2-3 views): Archives and single post views only, and a pretty typical layout.
  • Simple brochure site (2-4 views): Fairly standard but custom home page design, page layout. Stock archive / blog setup with little to no customizations.
  • Complicated blog (4-6 views): A bunch of “out of the box” styles for various templates, requires attention to detail on archives, single posts, and other stuff like post formats.
  • Marketing site (3-7 views): Basically a mashup between the simple brochure and complicated blog. Requires more designs to be made and the home page might be a little more advanced than the simple brochure.
  • Business website (5-12 views): Similar to a marketing site, but often includes a couple of custom content types that require design and code, like events, testimonials, services, etc.
  • eCommerce website (10-25 views): Could be a mix of any of the websites above, plus all the needs in eCommerce (like cart/account/checkout views, and tons of configuration considerations). This is often a huge PM bump as well.
  • Big non-profits or advocacy sites (10-30 views): I've found that non-profits and advocacy sites are pretty much the holy grail of wanting everything on a budget. These are really hard to keep in scope because they often have the same needs of big businesses, without the budgets.
  • Big business website (12-30+ views): Big business websites are like regular business websites, but more of it. They often have lots of custom content types, advanced searching needs, tons of content, and perhaps some fancy user permissions needs. And of course potentially much, much, more.
  • Big scale: You can take pretty much any of these types of websites and then say you need it to handle millions of pageviews per month without breaking a sweat, and a whole new layer of complexity comes into play.

The hours it takes to build these different types of websites vary can vary tremendously; it depends on the consultant's experience, whether they've done similar work before, how many “gotchas” appear in the project, how particular the client is about any given feature, and more.

However, I tend to believe in a few key concepts about pricing.

Pricing views

Generally, I try to estimate how many unique views a website has in order to wrap my head around how much it's going to cost.

What's a unique view?

  • The home page is a unique view.
  • The archive page is a unique view. Though archive pages could be category, search, and more all combined in one unique view.
  • The blog “post” page is a unique view.
  • The generic “page” template is a unique view, though can sometimes be mashed with the post view.
  • Custom page templates — like fancy about us pages, or a key landing page — are unique views.
  • Custom post types are often unique views — sometimes in the traditional archive/singular sense and other times the way it sits within another view: like how an FAQ content type may fit into a regular page.
  • Variable sidebars within sections of the website can be unique views

Unique views aren't always obvious. I usually figure out more necessary unique views depending on how my discovery conversations go with the client.

What's important about unique views is that they are excellent for estimating design time, and they at least can help guide estimating development time.

If a unique view requires a comp (design preview for the client), then that's a relatively set number of hours for design that are required. If it doesn't require a comp, I usually still build in some time for the designer to quality check after it's been developed, so they can make sure it looks good.

Designing a unique view, from the ground up, could take a designer between 4 and 10 hours depending on the complexity; and for certain complex or innovative views that number could hit upwards of 20 hours. Just for design.

Also, design requires a base set of hours to establish the overall tone of the website and to design things that are rarely considered with unique views, like the header, footer, and overall style guide. The base elements and style guide for the website could easily range between 10 and 100 hours. Yes, I know that's a ridiculous range. You should be accustomed to this by now.

So, we've sort of established a framework for pricing the design of unique views. Developing them is a different story.

Development must be carefully considered. Generally, my rule of thumb is that every design hour should get a development hour to go with it. But development hours can easily break that rule, especially when you are developing something complex. I use that rule for when the thing being developed is a known entity — like if you're building a custom post type for a team page or something.

Development hours can be literally anything for wholly custom functionality, and that is completely outside the scope of this post. Development can cost millions of dollars.

Pricing Content

With WordPress, you can add as many posts and pages as you want. This is true. I've also found that the more posts or pages the client's existing website has (and expects to transfer to the new site), the more complex the new project will be.

I don't have a perfect factor for increasing the price of a proposal because there is a lot of content, but I have some levels that I consider worth noting.

  • If there are less than ten pages, no big deal.
  • If there are more than 30 pages, you better start thinking about structure.
  • If pages are hierarchical (lots of parent > child page relationships) it's going to cost strategic thinking time.
  • If there are hundreds of pages, there's either a problem or a lot of strategy and design consideration to be made.
  • If there are thousands of blog posts, taxonomies (category / tag handling) and search are going to be important to consider, and will probably require more cost.
  • If there is a lot of content (of any sort), navigation needs to be uniquely priced for internal quoting purposes.
  • If it's a multi-author blog (likely with big blogs), it's going to need special consideration.
  • If pages or posts need editorial workflow (section management, change or publishing approval, etc), it's going to need special consideration.
  • If the current CMS isn't WordPress, the migration is a huge deal and you need some great language and details about how that's going to happen.
  • If the current CMS is WordPress, you need to know what plugins or custom code is potentially creating shortcodes or other weird content handling (maybe with custom fields), or what other bad practices may have taken place and need to be accounted for.

These are just some quick thoughts on content. There are more, but this is a great starting point.

Custom design vs a pre-built theme

You may have noticed I have not once brought up the question of whether the website is built using custom design or with a pre-built distributed WordPress theme.

Websites cost money for many reasons beyond the base styles.

Yes, custom design costs more than pre-built themes — until you try to add functionality to or modify the way something works in a template. Then you want to cry and run into a hole and pity yourself for having charged less money for using a pre-built theme.

For small sites, the question of custom vs pre-built themes is a big one. As the site gets bigger and more complex, the savings for using a pre-built theme are far less and can easily invert.

In short: clients shouldn't get too excited about the potential cost savings of pre-built themes and consultants should be careful about charging less for them.

Pricing is hard

Are you confused? Good.

Pricing is hard. Really. Hard.

People write books on this subject. I've written over 3,000 words and I'm not sure I've done it any justice at all.

Custom website prices

Okay, so after all of this, how much is it, you ask again? Hopefully now you realize it could be anything. People are not kidding when they say $1,000 or $1,000,000 (or more!).

However, in the interest of being helpful, I think here are some “ballparks” to consider:

Can you get a custom website for under $3,000? Yes, but be very careful, and know your risk of getting something imperfect is high.

If you work with a good freelancer, I think ~70% of custom websites for average folks and average businesses will cost between $3,000 and $15,000.

If you work with a good agency in a medium market, I think ~70% of custom websites for average folks and average businesses will cost between $8,000 and $40,000.

This difference from freelancers is because larger sites will naturally gear toward agencies, and agencies will be less likely to take on smaller projects if they can take bigger ones instead. That said, some agencies love the small jobs, because they get really good over time at doing quality work in less time than the competition.

If you work with a best in business freelancer to build something special (whether a simple blog or complex website), you'll probably spend between $10,000 and $50,000+. The freelancer you work with will probably utilize a team of other subcontractors in this scenario, because it's rare for someone to truly deliver all the things you need running solo.

If you work with a best in business agency to build something special (whether a simple blog or complex website), you'll probably spend between $15,000 and $100,000+. Most agencies will self-perform the work, and often times you can expect them to be available for retainer contracts, hosting / maintenance agreements, and other long-term relationship style services.

It's also worth noting that in large projects, it's very common to break them into multiple projects and phase them. This is very typical with six-figure clients, and in these scenarios it's not uncommon for some agencies to have million dollar per year clients, whether billed hourly, by project, or a combination of both.

I write this post for three audiences:

  1. Clients looking to hire a consultant, and not knowing what to consider when comparing costs
  2. Consultants trying to wrap their head around pricing
  3. Me, because I've been building websites for years and pricing them for a couple of those years, and I'm not even close to having it down

I hope this has helped you, and I apologize if it offended you.

If you have more to add, please let me know in the comments. I know many of my readers have much greater wisdom on this subject than I do.