This is of course one of the most common questions we’re asked. And, of course, there is no simple answer (you didn’t really expect there to be one, did you? 😉 Firstly, let’s set some parameters to narrow down the elusive answer to this question: You can spend anywhere from a few dollars to a few million dollars. At the very low end ($5-$1000 for a website), you have hobbyist web designers that aren’t really professionals most of the time. And of course, you’re going to get what you pay for. At the very high end, you have mega companies that charge 7 and 8 figures. But to call a project like that a ‘web design’ isn’t really fair. Those are typically all-encompassing systems that are beyond the scope of this article. A professionally designed website from a reputable, established web design firm will typically run anywhere between ‘a few thousand’ and ‘low six figures.’ That still doesn’t help you, we realize.

The House Analogy
Let’s use an analogy at this point, so that we don’t get lost in the technical jargon of web design. Building a website is a lot like building a house. And to ask what it cost to build a website is a lot like asking what it costs to build a house. The answer: “Well, it depends.”
Yes, it does. It depends on the scope of work. The size, the features, the quality… The time frame, the potential hang-ups and pitfalls… How much can be purchased or pre-fabbed versus custom-built… And like a house, with enough time and money, there isn’t much that you can’t do these days. Very seldom is it a question of ‘if.’ It’s a question of how much time and money will it take.

The house analogy holds true for the process as well. It’s simple to chat with a contractor, talk in very vague terms (ie, number of stories, bedrooms, square footage, etc.) and get a rough ballpark estimate. But as we hone in on the details of a project, it’s tough to give accurate estimates without accurate details. For example, it’s not sufficient to just say “a fridge goes in this room.” A fridge can cost $300 or $12,000. So which fridge do you want? It seems like a detail that is minor enough to not worry about in the estimate, but if you’re asking the contractor to included in the price, then it really does need to be figured out up front. As the planning and estimating continues, the planning and estimating become projects in and of themselves. With a house, there is only so much you can do on the back of napkins for the sake of getting an estimate. At some point, you need to hire an architect and engineer to commit your plans to paper so that the contractor can see in no uncertain terms what the scope of work entails. The same is true in web design (we even call them architects and engineers, as well.)

Back to our analogy: just like in the planning phases of building a house, it’s relatively easy to change the location of a wall on paper. But once that wall is committed to construction, moving it even just a little bit, can be veryexpensive to do and will incur additional fees. On the other hand, if you choose to move a hung picture 3 feet from where it was in the plans, it’s probably no big deal. Web design is the same way. Some changes—those that involve more structural elements of the website—will incur charges to change once the plans are approved. Other changes are minor and are no big deal to make as we go. Your project manager can help you identify the ‘big deals’ from the ‘minor stuff’ since it’s not always as obvious in the world of web design.
The Devil (and Costs) are in the Details
Do you want hardwood or laminate flooring? Big price difference given that they both get the same job done. The same is true in web design: do you want the $5 stock photo, or the $400 photo? Either will suffice. But one clearly has a quality edge over the other. And since we’re on the topic of photography, who is going to go do the legwork to find the right picture to embed in some content? (We sometimes spend HOURS trying to find the right graphics for a site.) If we go out and do that legwork, then come back, and you say “nope, don’t like it… go find another,” then we could go in circles for a long time. Time is money. Whereas if you do that legwork yourself, you can save a few bucks. Same goes with content: If you want to provide your own content or do your own proofing, that’s time we don’t have to spend, so you save money. But just like in house construction, at some point, you should leave it to the pros or the end result will suffer. Ever see a gorgeous house with really bad paint job? Sure, anyone can take a brush to a wall, but that doesn’t mean they should. Don’t make the mistake of ruining an otherwise great website by skimping on some of the seemingly surface work, because it’s that surface work that is what puts the final polish on a site.
Assuming Risk
Just like in house construction, it is impossible to know down to the hour how many man hours it will take to end up at the final product. At some point, both homeowner and contractor just have to agree that the price seems fair for the overall scope, and then both parties hope that they got it right. If the contractor leaves too many things to assumption, he’s on the hook for much more of a time investment than he thought. The ‘fixed fee’ is the dangerous part because there is no wiggle room in a fixed fee number. But the scope of work has so many variables and potential pitfalls, that no one knows whether or not the fixed fee covered the amount of work that went into a project. So the contractor needs to price high enough so that his bets are hedged and he doesn’t take a bath on the project. He’s stuck his neck out and committed to a fixed fee in hopes that the scope is detailed enough that nothing is missing and that your expectations are in line with his expectations. One way to reduce the cost of a project is to take some of that risk out of the equation for the contractor. At the other end of the spectrum is a purely hourly “time and materials” nature of billing. This puts all the risk onto the homeowner, as the contractor is going to get paid in full no matter what happens. He has no risk. Usually the best solution is a middle ground. By taking the project in fixed-fee chunks with the option to negotiate the details and price of future chunks as production ensues usually results in the most fair deal for both contractor and homeowner. The same is true in web design. If we know that we’re going to need to add a shopping cart down the road, there is no way to set a fixed fee price without getting into every little detail about shipping, cataloging, taxation, payment options, etc. But for the sake of not bogging down the project before it even gets started, it’s best to just agree that we know there will need to be a shopping cart set up at some point, and we agree that this shopping cart should run in the $15-20K range, but that we’ll figure out the exact details and price when we get to that point. Not all clients are comfortable with that type of process. So we can certainly provide a fixed fee for that shopping cart, even without all the details. But we may price it at $25K just to be safe. So again, taking some of the risk of underestimating a project off of the web designer can save you some money.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah… But ballpark it for me: how much does a website cost?”
There is no way to tell without more of a discussion. We don’t necessarily need to delve into the full-blown planning and estimating process to give you some rough numbers, but we do need about 10-15 minutes of your time to do a quick interview so that we can gauge what’s what. We don’t have a line item list of what features are available and what they cost. There is no price list. And just like a house contractor, there are some things that we can look at and know easily what the approximate cost is (such as tile installation), while there are other things that will take some thought (such as how much effort will all the wiring take.)

If you’ll fill out our estimate request form, one of our people will call you to chat about your project. We can usually give you a rough estimate over the phone, or next day (if it’s something we need to run past engineering first.) It’s free, and there is no obligation. Our sales execs are also project managers and strategists, so you get the added benefit of some free advice and consultation in talking to us.

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