Container Homes 101: Everything You Need To Know And Plan

If you're looking for a way to build an eco-friendly, affordable, yet unique modern home, then you may not need to look much further than a container home. Made from used shipping containers, these buildings are becoming all the rage in modern architecture. They're being incorporated into some inspiring design concepts and providing hope that we can make home construction more sustainable.

CC Image courtesy of Jim Dickson on Flickr

It might look like buying, renovating, and living in a container home is difficult, something you can only do if you have lots of cash, but this really isn't true. Yes, you can spend millions on an award-winning design that will be featured in architecture magazines, but you can also do a lot of other things so that you can enjoy a container home without spending a fortune.

To help show you how accessible container homes are, we've put together this guide. In it, you will learn:

  • What are container homes and why are they good or bad
  • How to buy a container and how much they cost
  • Tips for designing your container home
  • The pros and cons of prefabricated container homes

We hope this information will help you decide if you want a container home and clarify the process of acquiring or building one.

What is a Container Home?

Quite simply, a container home is a house built out of used shipping containers. You know, those big metal things that are stacked on top of one another and moved around the globe on big ships.

Around the world, millions of these containers are left unused. This is because it is often cheaper for shipping companies to purchase a new container than sending used ones back to their point of origin for reuse. As a result, there are oceans of these things just sitting around collecting dust, or worse, taking up space in landfills.

CC Image courtesy of Angel Schatz on Flickr

Some container homes consist of just the container itself. All you need to do is make a few minor modifications, and voila! – you now have a home that looks pretty much like a studio apartment.

However, those looking to build something bigger can stack containers on top of one another or line them up adjacent. This takes a bit more work as you will need to seriously alter the containers to get them to fit together, which will raise the project's overall cost. However, for those with the cash and the patience, this can be a great way to maximize what you can build with shipping containers.

Benefits of a Container Home

If you're new to the concept of container homes, you may be thinking, "OK, this is cool. But why would people do this?"

Well, it turns out there are a lot of good reasons to want to buy a shipping container and turn it into a house, such as:

  • Cost savings – Shipping containers can be bought for as little as $1,000 but rarely cost more than $5,000. This is far cheaper than framing a house. While you can expect to spend a fair bit more renovating it and getting it ready to live in, the cost of building using shipping containers is going to be far less than constructing a home with traditional materials.
  • Environmental impact – Using shipping containers for a building material reduces waste as the containers are reused. Using containers reduces our dependence on other materials, such as wood and plastic, but they also make it possible for you to reduce your home's environmental impact. These structures are relatively small and usually pretty airtight, meaning you will need to use less energy for things such as heating, cooling, lighting, etc. In fact, because of their size, it's possible to outfit them with solar panels and make them completely energy-independent.
  • Durability – These containers can withstand incredibly harsh conditions (think of the violent winds of the North Atlantic in the middle of winter). This makes them tremendous for building houses since you don't need to worry about wind, rain, and sunlight eroding your home, something you do need to keep in mind when building with more traditional materials. This helps reduce the cost of ownership on your home, saving you lots of money over time.
  • Versatility – Although the containers themselves are simple designs, this simplicity means you can do all sorts of things with your shipping container. In the end, they're just 3-D rectangles, so you can combine them into all kinds of shapes and make some exciting designs.
  • Minimalism – Because they are so small, container homes are an excellent choice for those looking to adopt a more minimalist lifestyle. You will not have space to store all that stuff you currently have in your basement or attic, so you will either need to give it away or throw it away. While it might be tough at first, those who go through this process often find that this reduction makes life simpler and more enjoyable.
  • Uniqueness – Although shipping container homes are getting increasingly popular, if you were to build one now, you would most certainly have the most interesting house not only on your block but probably in your entire town or city. For some, this is a major consideration when designing a house, and if you're one of these people, then give container homes some serious thought.

Downsides of a Container Home

There are many reasons why a container home is a great idea, but as with anything, there are also some downsides:

  • Unpredictable condition of containers – When shopping for containers, there are a few different grades used to indicate the container's condition. However, these can be inconsistent, and you won't honestly know what shape it's in until it's delivered to your door. Rust is common, as are dents and other cosmetic damage. Because of this, it's always best to try and see the container for yourself before you buy it, which you can do by going through a reputable dealer (more on this to come).
  • Potentially hazardous materials – Some containers are used to move harmful chemicals and other dangerous materials. This should be made apparent to you when you're shopping for containers, but make sure you're paying attention to this so you don't wind up with a container that you can't really use.
  • Building codes – Construction involving shipping containers is still a relatively new phenomenon, and this means a lot of towns, cities, and municipalities still don't have clear permit rules and regulations. If your area hasn't yet dealt with container home construction, then there may be some delays as you navigate the bureaucracy and get all the necessary permits. But DO NOT skip this step, as doing so can result in some hefty fines that could wipe out any savings you might have made by building a container home.
  • Shipping costs – Containers don't cost too much money, but moving the container from where it currently is to the plot of land where you plan to install it can become quite expensive, especially when you need to move the container large distances. Because of this, it's best to try and shop locally. Working with a container dealer can help you locate containers near to where you live, which should help reduce shipping costs.
  • Small space – Relative to most houses, shipping containers are not big. In total, you're looking at a few hundred cubic feet of space, which is going to be smaller than most studio apartments. For many, this is the point of a container home, but if you're not prepared for tiny house living, then stop before buying a container. One idea might be to rent one for a time to see if the lifestyle will work for you.

How Much Does a Shipping Container Cost

If you are ready to give it a try after seeing the positives and negatives of owning and living in a container home, then it's time to talk specifics.

Considering their durability and versatility, shipping containers are actually quite inexpensive.

Used shipping containers can cost as little as $800-$2,000, but the definition of "used" can vary widely. Some used containers will have little to no damage, but others will be rusted out, dented, or may even have had their seals broken. In some cases, they may have transported toxic chemicals.

Buying a used shipping container can save you a lot of cash, but it can also provoke some big headaches if you're not careful. The best thing to do is arrange to see the container in person before making a purchase, or, if possible, work out some sort of return policy if the container is not up to your standards.

New containers usually cost between $1,500-$3,000. Given that the price isn't all that different between new and used, it's probably best to go with a new one, especially if you're planning to turn your container into a home. However, this somewhat detracts from the eco-friendliness of container homes, so don't completely write off used containers. Just make sure to do your homework.

Next to condition, the size will have the most significant impact on your container's cost. Most containers are either 8, 10, 12, 20, or 40 feet long, with the 20' model being the most popular and the size you likely recognize the most. It is possible to custom order larger sizes, but this will significantly cut into whatever savings you made by buying a container.

For most, standard 20' containers will be the ideal choice as they present the best mix between size and price.

Different Types of Containers

The type of container you buy will also impact the cost. Even if the prices are similar, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different varieties so you can pick the one that is best for you. There are countless different types of containers, but here are some of the ones that are the easiest to convert into a living space:

  • Dry-freight containers – These are the "typical" container. They load in the front and are watertight and airtight. Most people will find that these containers offer the most versatility.
  • Open-top containers – Used to transport things such as coal or grain, these look like regular containers except they do not have a roof. Such a container could be used as the base for a home, but you would need to find a way to cover it.
  • Insulated containers – Designed to transport items that are sensitive to temperature, these containers are useful since they will require less work to insulate for living. However, depending on how they are insulated, you may be limited when it comes time to altering the container to fit your needs and designs.
  • Refrigerated containers – Sometimes referred to as "reefers," refrigerated shipping containers are exactly what they sound like – containers with built-in refrigeration systems. Those with experience in this type of machinery may be able to use this system when the container is used as a home.

If you come across a container that does not fit into one of these categories (which is very likely considering how many there are), simply take some time to read into what makes it different. You don't want to spend thousands to find out that what you bought isn't going to work for your design or property.

Where to Buy a Container Home?

While it's easy enough to see why a container home might be a cool idea, those new to the concept might be wondering where in the heck you find these things to buy. They're not exactly on display at Home Depot. Thankfully, the internet has made it easier than ever to acquire a shipping container.

In general, there are two ways to get your hands on a shipping container:

1. Ports and Depots – Shipping containers wind up at ports around the world, and if they're not going to be filled up again and sent out, then they just sit on the docks, sometimes for years. Ports try to sell these to free up space on their property, so give the nearest one to you a call first to see if there are any for sale. If you go this route, you'll likely need to go to the port and pick it up yourself, requiring you to either have the right equipment or have hired the right help.

2. Dealers and wholesalers – There are dedicated shipping container dealerships that typically work in the freight industry and will also deal with private buyers. The advantage to working with a dealer is that you can usually see the container before you buy it, and you can also go through the dealer to coordinate moving the container, saving you a big hassle. Just remember, this may lead to slightly higher prices. To find a dealer near you, simply do a Google search for shipping container dealers in your area.

3. Private sellers – Shipping containers can be found for sale on sites such as eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and any other online marketplace. You can find some real deals here, but the disadvantage is that it's harder to verify the container's condition before purchase. You will also likely need to figure out how to ship the container to your home on your own, which can be a timely and costly process.

We recommend exploring all channels, as there's no guarantee that one will produce more results than the other. With dealers, just be careful of hidden fees and do your homework to ensure you're not overpaying. With private sellers, make sure you only buy locally so that you can see the container before handing over any money.

Getting the Container to Your Property

Perhaps the biggest logistical challenge involved in container home life is moving the shipping container from where you bought it to where you plan to set it up. If you work with a container dealership, you should set this up through them. If you're on your own, then you'll have to coordinate this whole process yourself. Here are some things you should know about shipping a shipping container:

  • You can do it yourself if you have a flatbed trailer and the appropriate truck, as well as a forklift to help you get the container off the trailer once it's on your property. DO NOT try to do this unless you have experience with this machinery and are properly licensed.
  • If you don't have the equipment, you will need to hire a freight broker. These companies will get your container and deliver it to your home for you, bringing all the necessary equipment with them. This is the most convenient method, but it's also the most expensive. Expect to pay around $5 per mile to ship your container. At this price, you can see why it's best to try and buy these locally.
  • Dealerships can usually arrange shipping for you, which is often the most convenient thing to do. Just be careful to do your homework so that you can compare the freight rates they're offering with those given by independent companies.
  • If you buy a container from a port and decide to pick it up yourself, make sure you confirm with the depot that your container has been pulled from the stacks and is staged for pickup. The containers that are for sale are usually buried with the many others stored at the port, and it can take quite a bit of time to get them. So, save yourself some time and make sure that your container is ready when you show up.

Unless you have experience moving things of this size and the equipment, your best bet will be to work with a professional moving company. You'll just need to factor these costs into your overall construction budget.

How to Build a Container Home

OK, now that you know what containers are out there, how much they cost, how to ship them, and why they do and don't make good homes, it's time to embark on the process of actually repurposing your container into a home.

Design Your Container Home

Firstly, you need to come up with a design for your home. This could be something very straightforward or extremely elaborate, depending on your needs and your budget.

For example, all you may want to do is cut a few holes in the containers' sides to make doors and windows and construct a few surfaces inside to make it more livable, and that's it. In this case, you can probably do this by yourself, though don't be afraid to reach out for help when cutting into the container (this will require special tools that many of us are not qualified to use).

No matter what you do, you should check with a professional before altering the structure of the container to make sure you're not making modifications that will compromise its integrity.

Designing the home yourself will be the cheapest option, but you may want to hire a designer or architecture firm if you want something more elaborate. This will cost you more money, but it will allow you to create something truly unique.

DIY or Hire Contractors?

Building your shipping container home on your own could be an enjoyable and rewarding project, especially if you're on a budget. However, it's only practical to do this if you have the skills and expertise.

Of course, this depends slightly on your design. If you're doing something simple and don't need to worry about electricity, plumbing, and framing, it's much easier to DIY this project. However, the moment you start venturing into these areas, it's essential you know what you're doing so that you can build it safely and following local codes.

If you decide to work with a professional, we recommend finding a contractor that can handle the entire project. Fitting your container with floors, wires, pipes, windows, counters, doors, etc., will require many different tradespeople, and coordinating this all on your own will be difficult and time-consuming also potentially more expensive.

Reducing your point of contact to just one person will make it easier for you to keep your finger on the pulse of the project while also reducing the amount of planning you need to do, which will make it easier for you to make your design concept a reality.

Things to Consider

Some other things to consider as you plan and build your container home include:

  • Insulation – Most containers are not insulated. If you want to live in your container, you will need to install this. Doing so can be a pain since there is no natural gap in the wall where insulation could easily go, as is the case with traditional wood-frame houses. Make sure you have a plan for how you're going to create space for insulation to regulate your container's inner temperature effectively.
  • Windows and Doors Windows and doors will need to be cut into the container, which will require special tools most of us don't have. But it will also require you to do a bit of math to make sure that cutting into the metal frame of the container doesn't damage it and make it structurally unstable. Again, hiring a professional to help you figure this out will be the best way to go.
  • Sound Shipping containers were not designed for living, and their metal structures will howl in the wind. If you're going to live in yours, make sure you account for this; otherwise, you'll never get any sleep.
  • Structural Improvements One of the first things you should do when working on your design is to decide how much you want to alter the container. Do you want to remove the top or one side? Leave it intact? Check to make sure it's stable as is and doesn't need any reinforcements to be livable.
  • Container Condition The condition of the container will determine a lot of what you will be able to do with it. Large rust spots will need to be dealt with, as well as other structural flaws. Make sure you do a full audit before launching construction.
  • Local codes – Although a bit non-traditional, shipping container homes are still buildings, and so you will need to make sure you have all the right permits before you build, and also that your structure is up to code. If you're not familiar with local building codes and regulations, your contractor should be. Don't skip this step, as doing so can cost you lots of money in the future, plus it can even delay or halt construction altogether, something that is not only frustrating but also expensive.

Prefabricated Container Homes

Buying a standard container and outfitting it yourself will be the cheapest way to get yourself into a container home, but it's far from the easiest. If you're interested in a container home but don't want the hassle, consider a prefabricated (aka 'prefab') container home.

These are shipping containers that have already been remodeled and turned into a living space. You purchase it online, and it's delivered to your property intact. All you need to do is hook up to water, electricity, gas, etc. Your container home is then all ready to go.

Prefab container homes usually cost between $20,000-$40,000, which is considerably cheaper than what it would cost to build a traditional home.

There are some real benefits to doing this, but also some downsides. The main advantages include:

  • Convenience – You don't need to worry about any of the things we've discussed concerning building your container home. All you need to do is pick the design you like and fork out the cash.
  • Fixed price – Building on your own can lead to unexpected things, which almost always jack up the cost of your project. With a prefab home, you don't need to worry about this; the price is fixed. Going this route eliminates the possibility of there being any nasty surprises.
  • No design anxiety – Designing a home on your own can be fun, but if you don't have any experience, it can be stressful and difficult. With a prefab home, you don't need to worry about missing something. All the essentials are already there. You just need to choose what you want and wait for delivery.
  • Of course, there are some downsides to prefab homes, mainly:
  • Lack of originality – Since they're prefabricated, these containers are not unique. Yes, you may be the only one in your neighborhood or town with a container home, but someone somewhere has the same house. Some people aren't OK with this.
  • Expense – The convenience of a prefab home, of course, comes with a price. Doing it yourself will usually cost you less money unless you're thinking about doing some out-of-the-box things with your container. If cost is your biggest concern, consider budgeting out your design first and then comparing it to a similar prefab home to see if it's worth it.
  • Limited options – There are several companies offering prefab container homes, but there aren't many. Therefore, you won't have all that much choice as to which design you get. There are still some exciting concepts out there, and the convenience of a prefab home might just be enough to get you to look past the limited options they offer.

Let Container Life Begin

Container homes are not only interesting and exciting design concepts; they are practical solutions to our current waste and housing challenges. As expected, building or buying a container home requires you to consider things you would not usually care about with a more traditional construction. This is all part of what makes this idea so exciting. Hopefully, you now have all the information you might need about container homes to decide for yourself if this is the right move and then design the perfect container home for you.