WordPress Themes vs Custom Code | Captain Coder

WordPress Themes vs Custom Code

Marisa VanSkiver / May 24, 2021

wordpress themes

I’ve been noticing a lot more confusion lately about WordPress themes and what’s standard.

I’ve also noticed more and more web developers using third-party WordPress themes and drag and drop builders to create websites for clients.

With the added confusion of website builders like SquareSpace and Wix, I wanted to clear the fog and help you understand the difference between themes, builders, and the differences that make WordPress so powerful.

What Are Themes?

When WordPress first started in 2003, its main purpose was to create a great blogging platform that was easy to use. Over the nearly twenty years it’s been around, it’s grown to be a powerful tool to create websites. So much so that WordPress now powers 41% of the internet.

From the beginning, you were able to customize the look of your WordPress website from the default with your own theme. These themes control how your website looks, how it uses content, and even how fast your website loads or how good the SEO is. WordPress has always offered its own default theme, named after the year of its release – Twenty Nineteen, Twenty Twenty, Twenty Twenty One, etc. However, those themes were pretty “bland,” so developers like myself started coding their own and over the course of the last twenty years, there are thousands of WordPress themes available for free or usually a small fee on different marketplaces.

That theme is basically a package of code that controls almost everything about your site and should be written to work with the core WordPress functionality cleanly (read: should….)

Builders vs Themes

A few years ago, as WordPress grew, more and more people wanted the ability to customize their websites without needing to write a line of code. Popular plugins arose that combined with their preferred themes gave you a drag and drop builder. These builders, like Beaver Builder, Visual Composer, and Divi work only with themes that are compatible. Newer builders like Elementor can work with any theme and take over the website to let you control the look through a visual drag and drop website builder (kind of like SquareSpace or Wix).

Whichever one you choose, these builders tend to act as an add-on – a plugin – and are somewhat separate from the theme itself but they do control the theme.

A couple years ago, WordPress saw this need and created its own visual builder known as Gutenberg. A lot of these third-party plugins try to work with Gutenberg, but they tend to ignore it in favor of their own code.

Custom Coded WordPress

When a web developer says they build a WordPress website using custom code, what does that mean then?

Instead of buying a theme from the open marketplace from a third party or using a plugin builder like Visual Composer or Elementor, they instead build your website’s theme from scratch. Meaning the code used to create your website is customized 100% for you.

While I’ve spent years perfecting my basic theme, I’m able to remove the pieces my clients don’t need and and add-in customizations they do. It’s truly unique for your website because it’s created for your website instead of being a generic solution meant to work with thousands of others.

The Pros and Cons

Knowing now the three main ways a WordPress website can be built, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages to all of them.

Premium Themes

If you want to build your own website, you may have gone on a place like ThemeForest and found a WordPress theme that kind of looks like something you like and might need for your business. I always recommend that you pay for a theme vs using a free one, but you can expect to pay around $60-100 for a premium theme for your own website. Some of these websites will come bundled with drag and drop plugins like Visual Composer embedded in it already and some will have different ways to let you customize it.


  • Smaller upfront cost – about $60-100
  • Created to be easy for anyone to use/update
  • Can typically find industry-specific themes
  • Many come with theme author support
  • Pre-built components make it easy to build
  • Quick to install and customize


  • Anyone can buy it, which makes it vulnerable to hacking and security risks
  • Written to be good generically, which can cause it to be heavy code bloat and slow to load pages
  • Not fully customizable without a coder’s help
  • Your competitors might choose the same theme and cause you to look alike
  • Theme authors can stop supporting it whenever they feel like
  • Can conflict with certain plugins or WordPress updates

Premium themes are great as a first use to get into WordPress, but I don’t think they’re a good long-term solution. Just think about it; the goal to making a WordPress theme and selling it for $60 a pop is to sell it to as many people as possible. Your business is unique, and what one business coach needs might not be what you need.

The biggest issue for me is that I’ve had clients who used popular premium themes and got targeted in large-scale hacking operations. All it takes is that malicious person to spend $60 to find all the holes in someone’s code and then they have access to thousands of websites. I’ve seen it happen and it’s a nightmare for the theme author, the business owner, and the freelance web developer trying to help set it right.

Drag and Drop Builder Plugins

Building your own website is super easy with plugins and options like Elementor and Divi. They give you so many options to customize your website that you’re not as limited as you might be by another premium theme and they tend to play OK with the WordPress infrastructure overall.


  • Smaller upfront cost – about $60-100
  • Even easier to use than a generic premium theme
  • Lots of support for the industry big players – Elementor and Divi
  • Come with templates that you can customize to make building quick and easy
  • Quick to install and customize


  • Extremely heavy code can make your site slow to load
  • Your competitors are even more likely to be using the same templates with these right now (very trendy)
  • Have to keep a support license for a yearly fee
  • Plugin authors can stop supporting whenever they feel like
  • Still not fully customizable
  • Can conflict with certain plugins or WordPress updates

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve trialed a couple of these on smaller budget projects because they have decent reputations. But overall, drag and drop builder plugins add soooo much code to a website that just isn’t necessary. They can be incredibly easy to use, but they also like to break some core WordPress functionality to work the way they want. If you’re going to go with a builder plugin, I’d recommend Elementor over any of the others.

Custom Code

Custom code, on the other hand, is just that. It’s custom. It’s built to be just for your needs and your business. While many web developers like myself might have a theme built that they start with, they’ll customize it 100% for your website’s needs, your design aesthetics, and you’ll be the only one out there with that website. A good WordPress developer should always be writing their custom themes to play nice with WordPress’s core functionality, too, so custom coded themes tend to play nice longer than some of the cheaper options on the market.


  • Built for you only
  • You don’t have to build the website yourself!
  • Tends to be leaner with faster page-load
  • Custom design flows around content, not the other way round
  • More secure because it’s not available on the open market
  • Developer tends to offer care packages post-launch
  • Fewer plugin and WordPress conflicts


  • Higher upfront cost (usually starts around $5K and up)
  • Not always as flexible to changes later
  • You’ll need to find a developer/web agency who offers custom code

Custom code is definitely the most costly of the three, but it does mean that someone else is building your website. That means you’re not spending countless hours trying to figure out how to work Elementor and get it to do what you’re wanting in your head, but instead, your partnership with a WordPress developer lets them do the heavy lifting for you. Depending on the way the WordPress developer codes, your site might be harder to change up later.

I actually ask my clients for their visions for their businesses in a year and five years so I can hopefully future-proof their website. I also build mine to be easy to keep updated and provide the training you’ll need to do that yourself.

Which Direction Should You Go?

Honestly, a lot of this comes down to what your budget is. If you’re ready to hand over the reigns and a few more dollars to get a completely custom solution for your business, I’d always recommend custom code over anything else. Custom code is more secure, faster, and has a longer shelf life than a website built with page builders or premium themes.

I’ve been a little appalled to see other agencies charge thousands of dollars only to build the actual site in a page builder or WordPress theme I know they got for $60, even if they’re writing the copy and customizing the design for every client. It just opens your business up to some vulnerabilities that you don’t need to deal with.

If you are leaning towards investing in your business with a custom coded WordPress website, make sure to check out the questions you should ask any website designer. But the biggest you should ask is how easy they create the site for you to be able to make text and image changes and how they future-proof your website as they build it. After all, if you’re going to invest $5K+ in your business, you need to know that it’s going to work for longer than a couple of years.

If you want to chat with me about a custom coded solution for your business, book a free consultation call and let’s talk about your unique business!

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