The Real Cost of Building a Website: Website Builders vs Web Designers

Star Mountain Design
13 min readOct 28, 2020


It’s a big debate in the online business world. Why use a web designer or a web design agency when you can use a commercial website builder that doesn’t make you financially commit a set sum of money upfront?

Written by Lauren Sternberg
Contributed to by Aisha El-Tahlawi

It’s a big debate in the online business world. Why use a web designer or a web design agency when you can use a commercial website builder that doesn’t make you financially commit a set sum of money upfront? With an increasing amount of commercial website builders to choose from and those whose advertising campaigns are everywhere you look, it’s no surprise that many people these days are convinced that these website builders are the way to go — and many are more than willing to take a shot at using one to get their business online.

Why do I need a web designer/agency if I can make a website myself?

You might think web designers are biased in their opinion on this one. Fair enough. You might say that of course a web designer is going to discourage the use of commercial website builders because they could essentially put us out of a job. Well, everyone in the web design industry has had to accept that the existence of commercial website builders has, at one point or another, taken business away from independent web designers or web design agencies. For some people, these commercial builders are the right fit. If you’re someone who is tech-savvy and just starting out, looking for a quick online presence to sell yourself/product/services, and are seeking that textbook-trendy-looking website, then you’re probably in the right place with using a website builder (if you have the time to do so).

However, these commercial website builders can also be very “cookie cutter.” IKEA is a good parallel example of this. They sell the most current trendy look and feel of a product, for affordable upfront pricing. Similarly, with commercial website builders, you practically buy the look/template of a website you like. In both cases, you spend a little time putting it together, add your content/stuff onto it and it’s done. Don’t get us wrong — we’re not hating on IKEA. Almost all of our office furniture is from there! But the common theme here is that, it’s mass-produced and we manage our expectations based on that. It generally doesn’t last a lifetime, as you’ll already know if you’ve ever found yourself trying to duct-tape a Billy bookcase back together. It’s not bespoke; it’s produced for the masses- which is obvious when you see their furniture in someone else’s house and you immediately know where it came from. Websites aren’t much different in this vein — you’ll recognize the same “look and feel” of websites that span different industries.

So, what does it do for you? What does it say about your business and ingenuity? Your ability to be innovative? It’s not exactly unique and certainly won’t make you stand out amongst your competitors. It’s not suited for everyone and it won’t necessarily sell your product or service any better than their site will. However, for many business owners, their online presence is what will make or break them. It’s not a game; it’s serious business — especially if your only storefront is a digital one.

Commercial website builders are not meant for those looking for long-term progression. Oftentimes, as your business grows, these commercial builders no longer suit your needs and you end up paying more money — either more to the builder or separately to a design agency. But if you had the money to buy a new bookcase, would you buy the same exact one that didn’t stand the test of time? Why would you throw more money at a website builder knowing it still isn’t going to be what you really want and that you’ll be paying for that monthly?

Websites built on commercial builders are quick and fast to make but they’re not a good investment as you’ll soon see when we show you their costs over a long period of time. While the ability to pay a monthly fee is less terrifying than the upfront financial commitment of hiring a web designer/web design agency, you’ll quickly learn there are disadvantages to getting involved in a commercial website builder — beyond the financial ones.

The Disadvantages of Using Commercial Website Builders

1. Restricted themes and premium add-ons

You’ll find yourself quite restricted in functionality with the theme/template you choose in a commercial website builder. You’ll quickly learn that the more functions you want your site to have, the more you’ll end up paying in a monthly cost. Inevitably, you’ll realize that it’s not even the site you want but you don’t know how to break into the website builder’s code to make it work the way you want to. Even if you could, it’s not going to be easy to make it function exactly as you planned, as you’ll have to try and overwrite many lines of codes to do so.

2. Mobile responsiveness is not guaranteed

Some commercial website builders offer templates that are completely mobile-responsive but some, however, do not. In the US in 2018, 81% percent of adults age 18+ owned a smartphone, which means that we’re living in an age where people are increasingly accessing the internet via their cell phones rather than desktop computer (Pew Research). If you’ve ever had a poor user experience using a website on your phone that was far inferior to the same site on a desktop computer, then you’ll have an understanding of why mobile responsiveness is so important. If your commercial website builder doesn’t guarantee your website will be fully mobile-responsive, run, don’t walk.

3. Your website is not really yours to keep

With commercial website builders, they more or less own your website and you actually pay them for the honor. Should you decide that their prices are increasing beyond your budget, they have a security breach, or they go out of business, you won’t be able to transfer the site you created with them to another website builder or WordPress. In comparison, when a web designer or web design agency builds a website for you using straight code or a content management system like WordPress, you are in total control of your site — even if you decide to move on to another designer, another hosting company, or another theme. There are no restrictions. You own your site regardless of who designed it or who is hosting it.

4. Mass produced themes/templates are not SEO-friendly

These mass-produced themes/templates are known to be unnecessarily large in size. This is because they contain a great deal of unused code in them so that an average Joe can customize them without having any knowledge of writing code. While some may think this isn’t a big deal, it is. Heavy sites take longer load, which creates a poor experience for a cell phone user. Not only that, code that is redundant and not well-written can negatively impact a site’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) ranking. It’s actually ironic because a lot of these commercial builders boast about the premium SEO features they offer, but fail to take into account the coding practices that produce strikes against a website’s ranking.

The inevitable of paying twice for a website

Down the line, you’ll most likely find yourself contacting a web designer to make you a new site, therefore paying twice for the same product. We’ve been that web designer so many times, we’ve lost count. Having a well-built, useable and eye-catching website is an important part of business success in the 21st century. A poorly-designed site with a lackluster user experience, minimal functionality and a lack of ingenuity behind your brand can be detrimental to your business. Taking the plunge and making a better long-term investment by choosing a web designer or web design agency can save a lot of headaches and money along the way.

Finding the right fit for you

Commercial website builders allow you to pick whatever off-the-shelf look/theme for your website with no thought behind the design “does this fit with my audience?” A website for a trendy startup company is not going to work well for a small local business selling baked goods, for example. As web designers, we research your target audience, your competitors, what look are they portraying, how you can stand out from others in your design — all while bringing your Unique Selling Point (USP) to the forefront. We make something completely unique, custom and tailored to your business through color, typography and design.

“I don’t have the budget for a web designer.”

This is something that we can absolutely understand and to be honest, there are a lot of web designers and design agencies out there that are taking people for a ride. If you want to know more about what to look out for, check out our article, Avoiding Digital Back Alleys. It’s an unfortunate aspect of an industry that isn’t regulated. Spending time doing a little research before you delve in will serve you well. If you can get a recommendation of a web designer from a personal connection, even better! Commercial website builders are not as cheap as you may think and can cost you more money in the long run than hiring a designer would! You’ll think, gosh, that can’t be true. However, the way it works with most web designers and agencies is:

  1. We make your website for you
  2. It’s a fixed term contract; once the website is done, our duty is also done and we don’t require any further payments. You only pay for your hosting and your domain, which can be as inexpensive as $4 per month.

Commercial website builders’ costs do not end once you’ve finished making your website- you still pay for that builder every month for as long as you keep that website.

Think about that cost over the years of your business running.

In a couple of years, you will likely have exceeded the cost of using an independent web designer/agency and it doesn’t end just there- you’ll most definitely have added extras to pay for, as these commercial website builders capitalize on their premium add-ons. Any extras you could need for your business will be an add-on that you’ll be paying for every month.

Ok, so, why don’t you give me some scenarios where this happened?

Sure thing.

First we’ll start with some of the things we’ve heard from clients who had a commercial website builder and came to us to redo their site.

  • “I don’t know what I’m paying $200 a year for, my site doesn’t have any special features and yet the price has increased over time for the same service.”
  • “I used a website builder but my site doesn’t look professional at all.”
  • “The look of the website I built myself doesn’t fit in with others in my industry, it needs to be modern.”
  • “The site I built on [commercial website builder] looks terrible on mobile.”
  • “I wanted to add to my site, but every time I wanted to add a feature, the monthly price increased.”

We’ll come back to an earlier point: There undoubtedly is something less anxiety-producing about seeing costs broken down into smaller numbers. It’s the same psychology behind the whole $0.99 method of advertising. If you see a product advertised for $5.99 or $6.00, our gut tells us to favor the former. We see a smaller number before the decimal point, and that triggers something favorable in our brains. But if the cost was $6.00 or $6.01, would that really make a difference? No, of course not. We’re talking about 1¢.

So, when we see the cost of a normal website (not a business one) on a commercial website builder labeled as $12/month, we think, ah, that’s doable for my side hustle.

Well, first of all, that price is when you commit annually.

The price if you just want a monthly commitment (crucial if you’re just starting out) is actually $16. But it still doesn’t break the bank, does it?

Now what about when you want to start adding features beyond what you signed up for? Well, that makes things add up. So let’s say for argument’s sake, on this one website builder, they’ll throw in a lot of things you may not need but not include two things you definitely need that would be free on WordPress: A robust SEO plugin that guides you through optimizing your site for searches (you want to have some control over how you appear in them, right? That’s going to cost you $15/month) and the ability to have comments on your blog ($5/month)

$16 x 12= $192 (just the site itself)

$20 x 12= $240 (two add ons)

Yearly cost: $432.

Not to mention that many site builders increase their prices after your first contract with them — but hey, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and pretend they won’t do that — because we will still prove our point.

If you have this basic site for more than 2 years, you’re already paying more to run it on a website builder than to have it built by a relatively inexpensive small agency. If it’s more than 3 years, some of the bigger ones.

By our own average, of our projects that were rebuilds of website builder sites, those sites had typically been online 3–5 years.

Let’s do the math.

And most times, it’s not even the site you really want — a common sentiment among those who come to us looking for a rebuild.

But if you want a case study, we’ll give you one without mentioning too many identifying details.

We had a client come to us who was in an industry where aesthetics reigned supreme over everything else, but still needed a site that showcased their brick and mortar business in the best possible light.

The client had previously purchased a website builder from their domain company. The client received one price for the first two years, and then the price increased by 66% for the next two years. Following that, the client was signed on for things they were told they needed to increase their business — premium business options, marketing, SEO, etc. By the final year they were using the website builder, their price had increased 232% for a two-year contract.

The client paid approximately $1400 for a site that was online for 4 years.

A site that the client says, lacked the design and aesthetic needed to be competitive in their industry because:

  1. The client lacked the digital skills needed to create that aesthetic
  2. The design of the site was heavily restricted due to the commercial website builder’s limitations.

The same kind of website the client originally created, in terms of size and design, would have cost $665 with us.

Ultimately, the client chose to expand the functionality of the site, which included choosing a fully customized design and aesthetic. We built the website on WordPress so that the client could log in and make text and image edits as needed, which is crucial for a business where prices can change. And that site, which was exactly what the client wanted, cost $1065.

Still cheaper than a commercial website builder.

Fine, tell me more about WordPress.

Web designers and developers more than any other option, turn to WordPress when building websites. Reason one, it’s the #1 content management system in the world, which means you’d be hard-pressed to find a competent web designer who doesn’t know how to build on it. Reason two, the dashboard interface of WordPress is suitable for a wide range of digital proficiency, which means that after a website is built, the client is able to go in and edit most of their written and image content.

Back when web design was in its infancy, sites were primarily built using HTML, CSS and Javascript. What this meant was that if you had a website built for you or your business this way, you had to pay a web designer or developer every time you needed something changed because it was unlikely you knew the coding languages required to do this yourself.

When WordPress came along, it introduced the world to a friendly-looking backend system where making simple changes was just that… simple.

What web designers do is they use the WordPress interface and create a design theme — a “look and feel”, along with a layout — to create your site. We do this using those same coding languages above, but it’s only for the design of the site — not the actual content. This allows the client to keep their website up to date without any fear of messing up code used to create the site’s design. Can’t beat that, right?

In summary

Ultimately, the decision will always come down to you and the needs of your business. Regardless of whether you choose to go with a commercial website builder or an independent design agency, we hope that we have raised your awareness of the different experiences that you can encounter with both.

Hopefully, you can now see that not all independent web designers and agencies are financially out of your reach. It may take some time to figure out cost comparisons for sites that will be online long-term, but it’s worth sitting down to do some research.

To see examples of our pricing at Star Mountain, Design for Web, check out our services page.

Originally published at on October 28, 2020.



Star Mountain Design

We are a UK-based WordPress web design agency with a presence in London, Liverpool & New York. We create bespoke websites and digital products for your business