How To Choose The Right Container For Your Needs

The recent trend of repurposing shipping containers into all sorts of buildings is a perfect example of how human creativity and innovation can help us tackle some of our time's most pressing environmental challenges.

These containers, which move goods around the world, are often only used once or twice before they are left in a port or depot to rot. It's often cheaper for shipping companies to buy new containers than it is for them to try and move the empty ones they already own around the globe.

From a business perspective, this makes sense, but it's tremendously wasteful. Thankfully, creative people worldwide have started thinking of new ways to use containers, and the applications are nearly endless.

So you want to join the party and do something with an old shipping container? Good for you! But to make it happen, you need to take a lot of things into account and make some key decisions. Here's everything you need to know to make sure you choose the right container for your needs:

Benefits of Shipping Containers

To make sure you're choosing the right shipping container for your needs, it's essential to know their benefits. This will help point you towards containers that are better suited for your project and that embody the good things about container constructions.

The main benefits of shipping containers include:

  • They're relatively cheap – Older, beat-up containers cost just under $1,000, and brand new containers are usually no more than $5,000. Considering their size (usually 8' x 8' x 20'), this is quite a bit of space for not that much money, especially compared to what it would cost to build a similar space using traditional materials.
  • They're incredibly durable – Built to make multiple trips around the globe while exposed to the harsh elements of the open ocean, these containers won't degrade in the elements. It takes considerable force to damage them (one that we hope isn't passing through where you live!). As a result, once your initial modifications are done, you shouldn't need to worry about maintenance too much. These things won't really weather, saving you time and money.
  • They're versatile – Containers are either cubes or 3D rectangles, and while this may seem simple, this simplicity makes it easier to come up with a wide range of designs using them. They can be stacked on top of one another or placed alongside and modified to fit together, enlarging the space you can create with containers and expanding the possibilities open to you.
  • They're eco-friendly – If you don't buy a shipping container, they take up space on a dock somewhere (costing someone money), or worse, they end up in landfills, exacerbating the world's waste problem. Buying one and turning it into something else helps tackle this problem. Plus, these containers are air- and watertight, meaning heating and cooling them is easy, saving you money and the world its precious resources.
  • They're unique – OK, the shipping containers themselves all look the same, but by repurposing one, you're likely going to become the coolest kid on the block. Container construction is still new and seen as cutting edge, so whatever project you have in mind, expect your neighbors to be jealous of your unique design.

If you keep these benefits in mind while planning your project and shopping around for containers, it will be easier for you to weed out what you don't want and make a choice that will help your vision become a reality.

Downsides of Shipping Containers

Of course, while there are many great reasons for repurposing shipping containers, there are also some downsides. It's helpful to know what these are to be more aware as you shop and plan, meaning you avoid getting something that simply won't meet your needs. The main drawbacks to shipping containers are:

  • They come in different conditions – Like anything you would buy used, shipping containers come in various conditions. We'll discuss this more in detail later, but the thing to look out for is that the condition advertised on the website where you found the container might not reflect reality. This could have a significant impact on what you're able to do with it. Rusty, bent containers, for example, won't make great living quarters. Unfortunately, there is no universal system for determining a container's condition, so you will need to take it on a case-by-case basis.
  • They're expensive to move – The containers themselves aren't all that expensive, but moving one from storage to where you want to install it and work with it can be a real challenge. Make sure you have a plan for how you're going to do this so you don't cost yourself a fortune and ruin the savings containers can offer.
  • They're not easy to modify – While containers lend themselves to all sorts of unique projects, actually implementing these can be tough. Cutting into containers requires special tools and skills, and installing things such as electricity, piping, insulation, etc., are all tasks most of us should not attempt on our own. Therefore, it's a good idea to think through most of your project before you go out shopping, as this will help inform you how much you should spend and which type of container you should look for.

Keeping these points in mind will make it much easier for you to find the right container for your needs. Anything that makes these negative elements worse is likely not going to be the right container.

How to Choose the Right Container for You

Now that you have an idea of the overall pros and cons of containers, you should have a slightly better idea of how to plan your project. However, there are a lot more things you should consider before you go ahead and make a purchase.

Here are all the things you need to think about to make sure you buy the right shipping container for your needs:

Why Do You Want a Container?

Perhaps the first thing you need to ask yourself if you want to find a container that fits your needs is, "what are my needs?" In other words, why do you want a shipping container?

Answering this question is going to make it much easier to know which container is for you.

Overall, there are countless things you can do with a shipping container, but here are some of the more common applications as well as some information about which type of container you might need for each:

Storage and Moving

One application for shipping containers that people often overlook is storage – their intended application. This is a perfect solution for those who have a decent amount of land and need additional storage but don't want to build a garage or shed.

If this is your container's intended purpose, you can be a bit more flexible in terms of what you pursue. For example, you likely don't need a new container, and you can probably get away with buying one that is slightly damaged.

Of course, it depends on what you want to store inside (you may still need it to be watertight), but, in general, the container's aesthetics should matter much less if all you want it for is storage. This will save you money, as well as hassle, for you won't need to spend as much time looking for a container in perfect or near-perfect condition.

It's also possible to use these containers to move, helping you save money with moving companies. If this is the case, then you can probably aim for the cheapest container you can find, as you only need it to pack your stuff up and move.

Of course, if you do this, it only makes sense if you also have the means of moving the container yourself (flatbed truck and forklift). Otherwise, the savings you get by using the container will go straight out the window.

Housing Construction

A popular use for shipping containers these days is housing construction. Being versatile, durable, and inexpensive, these containers can make great homes. Some people do very little to the containers, turning them into "tiny homes." In contrast, others have put great effort into designing a container home worthy of architecture and design awards.

Either way, if you're going to be using your shipping container to build a house, then you'll want to pay special attention to a few things, mainly condition and previous use. While some cosmetic issues with the container can be covered up, every modification you make will likely cost you money. It's best to try and find containers that are as close to new as possible so that you don't need to do too much to make them usable for construction.

Previous use is also important. Many shipping containers have contained hazardous materials, and while this might not be an issue if you plan to use the container for storage, it could be if you plan to live in it as a home. Make sure to ask what the container carried before it was taken out of use, and do some research on what impact that might have on your quality of life moving forward.

If you're planning to use a shipping container for a house, expect to pay a bit more upfront for nicer containers. Doing so will wind up costing you less in the long run, and it will also make it easier for you to create a container house that's worth calling a home.

Swimming Pools

Everyone loves an in ground pool, but they are expensive to build and maintain. However, repurposing a shipping container into a swimming pool is an excellent way to bring costs down. All you need to do is dig a hole in the ground, place the container in the hole, insulate it, fill it, and voila! – pool!

For this type of application, the container's physical appearance doesn't matter at all, so long as it's structurally sound. If the exterior is rusted and dented, who cares? It will be buried underground, never to be seen.

However, while the container's appearance might not matter much, other things are extremely important. For example, for this type of application to make sense, the container must be watertight. Otherwise, you're going to need to spend a lot of money sealing it, and this defeats the initial purpose of using a container for your pool.

One thing you'll want to consider is if you want a standard container or an open-top container. As the name suggests, open-top containers do not have a top. They, therefore, lend themselves to things such as pools.

However, not all open-top containers have watertight bases, so make sure to check this out before making a purchase. The alternative is to buy a standard container and cut the top off. This may be cheaper than sealing a non-watertight container, but make sure to look into this before making your final choice. We'll discuss the different types of containers in more detail in the next section.

Other Construction

Shipping containers can be used for all sorts of other construction projects. Some of the most interesting include:

  • Restaurants and cafes
  • Hotels
  • Schools
  • Office buildings
  • Hospitals
  • Bars
  • Dorms
  • Labs

The sky is the limit when it comes to container construction. For these many different construction projects, your needs as related to containers will vary.

In general, projects intended to make the containers "livable" will need containers in better shape, so they are safer and easier to work with. In the case of larger projects, such as hotels and restaurants, you will likely be combining many different containers, meaning you will have to modify and cut each one. This could allow you to get away with lower-quality containers than if you were using just one.

For those looking to tackle one of these big projects, we recommend you engage with an architect and contractor right from the beginning. They will help you identify what you must have and what you can live without in a container, and this will make it much easier to shop for and find one that fits your needs.

Comparing Different Containers

Depending on which type of project you're pursuing, you'll need to consider three main things while planning and shopping: size, type, and condition. We've hinted at all three of these things, but here's a detailed breakdown of what you can expect on the market:


Almost all shipping containers have an 8' x 8' opening. However, after that, very little is standard.

The shipping container that comes to mind when most of us hear the word is the 20' container. This is the most common and the one that's easiest to find on the market. The next most common is the 40' container, precisely the same except double the length.

One thing to keep in mind is that longer containers can hold less weight, though the 40' containers can still carry up to 4,000 pounds. If you need more, then you will need to go with shorter containers.

Other sizes you can find are:

  • 8' – These are unique because they are perfect 8'x 8'x 8' cubes. All the other containers are going to be rectangles. Therefore, if your specific project or design concept is made easier with square containers, you'll want to keep an eye out for these 8-footers. They're a little harder to find, so get ready to be patient. These containers can handle more weight than any other container available.
  • 10' and 12' – Slightly larger than the cubed 8-footer but smaller than the standard 20' container, these are good for storage and smaller construction projects. For example, a 12' container would make a great garden shed, greenhouse, or outdoor workshop. However, since these are not standard sizes, they can be a bit more difficult to find and, at times, more expensive.
  • Custom containers – If none of the sizes we've mentioned work for you, you can order a custom container. However, this will force you to pay the highest price, and it also doesn't do anything to address the waste problem that used containers create. Therefore, before ordering a custom container, look to see if you can find one similar somewhere. You can do this by working with a container dealer; they will look in a larger area and usually find more options. If this doesn't work, consider altering your plans, and as a last resort, you can order one to the specifications you need.

For most people, the 20' container will be sufficient, but specific projects will require different-sized containers. Figure out which one is right for your project, and this will make it considerably easier to search for a container that fits your needs.

One thing you should look for with any container is forklift pockets. These are spaces on the bottom of the container where the forklift prongs will go. Most should have these, especially the standard ones, but more unique containers might not, making moving them much more difficult.

Type of Container

Next to the container's size, the most important thing to consider is the type of container. Yes, there are many different ones to choose from, and if you're not familiar with the lingo, it's really easy to purchase something that is not suited for your project.

Here are the most common container types out there:

  • Dry-freight containers – These are the "standard" containers. They are usually 20' long, water- and airtight, and open only on one end. This container will fit the needs of most, which is good since these are the most common and most reasonably-priced containers on the market.
  • Open-top containers – As you might guess from the name, these containers do not have a top. They were used to transport things such as coal or grain that did not need to be sealed and may have been loaded from above. For obvious reasons, they are not water- or airtight, but they can be useful for pools or storage applications. You can also add them to other design concepts to help you do more with your container project.
  • Insulated containers – Again, the name says it all. These containers move temperature-sensitive goods. They are great if you plan to live or work inside your container as they can save you from installing your own insulation, which can cost a fortune. However, if you plan to modify the container, check to see how this will impact existing insulation. It might not be possible to make too many changes, limiting this type of container's practicality. These containers are typically able to maintain temperatures ranging from 53°F to -13°F (12° to -25° C). Therefore, they are better suited for keeping things cool or cold rather than warm, which is essential to keep in mind.
  • Refrigerated containers – Going one step further than insulated containers, refrigerator containers, also known as "reefers," have a cooling system built right in because they were used to move perishable goods. Integrating this into your construction project can be useful and save you lots of money, but doing so can be tricky. It's best to ask a professional to see if this type of container will work before purchasing, especially since reefers will cost a lot more than other containers of similar size.
  • Hardtop containers – These come with a reinforced top, making them ideal if you plan to put things on top of your container. Typically, hardtop containers are only found in 20' and 40' models.
  • Ventilated containers – Standard containers are airtight, meaning they don't allow any air in or out. This can be great, but it's not ideal for all projects. For example, if you're using yours as a greenhouse, you may want something that allows air in. Ventilated containers are perfect for this.
  • Cube containers – As mentioned earlier, these containers can hold the most weight, though they are smaller. However, as cubes, they can be stacked more efficiently, opening the door for all sorts of interesting construction ideas.

Other types of containers do exist, but these seven represent the most common and the most useful. If you come across something different, spend some time researching it before purchasing to see if it will provide any tangible benefits to your project.

Condition and Price

After size, the condition of the container is going to be a significant factor in helping you determine which one to buy. Also, the container's condition will have the most significant impact on how much it costs.

In the shipping world, a container's condition is referred to as its grade. There are three grades:

  • "Cargo worthy" – These containers are like-new and could be used to ship goods if there was a demand. They will be the most expensive, but they are also going to have the fewest defects. At most, you might find a small rust spot or a dent, but other than that, cargo worthy containers look almost brand new.
  • "Watertight/airtight" – A step below "cargo worthy," this grade refers to containers that have maintained their water- and airtight properties but have some significant cosmetic damage, such as rust or dents. In other words, these containers are "fine." They just don't look quite as pretty as other ones. For many, this grade will provide a nice balance between cost and condition, but be sure to inspect how much damage there is before purchasing.
  • "As is" – The lowest grade, these containers can range from being just slightly worse than "watertight/airtight" to practically unusable. They will be the cheapest but expect considerable structural damage that might impact the functionality of the container. When shopping for "as is" containers, always arrange to inspect the container yourself before handing over money, as you never know what this descriptor means until you've had the chance to inspect the container with your own eyes.

As for price, things can vary quite a bit. For an "as is" 20' container, you shouldn't pay more than $1,000, and you can often find them for less. Conversely, a "cargo worthy" 20-footer can cost you up to $5,000, though you can typically find them for between $3,000 and $4,000.

Specialty boxes, such as reefers and insulated containers, may be more, especially if they are cargo worthy; however, expect to pay somewhere in this range.

One handy way of figuring out which container will best fit your needs is to determine your budget. Doing this will help you narrow down your search, making it much easier to find the container that's right for you.


Always keep in mind is the material of the container. The vast majority of containers are either made from steel or aluminum.

In general, steel is much better. It's stronger and therefore more durable, meaning it can handle more weight. However, the downside is that steel containers are a bit more expensive, but they are also far more common.

Aluminum containers are really only good for two reasons: they're lighter, and they're cheaper.

As a result, they are only ideal for those who expect to move their container a lot. For example, some people have bought shipping containers and turned them into campers, which they tow with their cars/trucks. If this is what you're planning to do, then an aluminum container is likely going to be ideal for you. All others will probably want to stick with steel.

Where to Find Your Container

Another factor that will help you choose the right container for you is what's available. For most, buying locally will be the ideal move since this will dramatically reduce the cost of moving the container to your property.

In general, there are three ways to find shipping containers:

  • Private sellers – Shipping containers are always for sale on sites such as eBay or Craigslist. You can find some real deals here, but you will have to navigate all the standard perils of buying from strangers on the internet. Plus, you will likely need to figure out shipping all on your own.
  • Ports and depots – Unused shopping containers sit at ports and depots until they are purchased, so contact your local one to see what's for sale. You can get some real deals doing this as these places are often eager to get rid of their containers, but you will need to figure out transportation on your own, and you'll also be at the mercy of the port's schedule.
  • Dealers – Yes, there are dealers who sell nothing but shipping containers. Typically, they work with freight companies, but they will sell to individuals. This is the route to go if you have a particular need and are having trouble finding the right container for you, meaning you need to expand your search. They will also help you with transportation, but this is also the most expensive route to go. If you're still unsure of your needs even after reading this guide, working with a dealer can be a useful way of identifying which container is right for you.

While shipping containers are available worldwide, the one you need might be hard to find. As a result, it's often a good idea to work this process backward. Look for what's available by searching the outlets above, and then think about how you can make those containers work.

This is also important since it will tell you how much to expect to pay in terms of transportation, which can dramatically alter your actual container budget and narrow down the possibilities.

Make Your Container Project a Success

Shipping containers are fantastic construction alternatives that can be used in a variety of different ways. Each project will be different, and this means each one will require a different container.

Hopefully, after reading this guide, you know a lot more about what is out there and can make a much more informed decision about which container is right for you and your project. Once you've done that, it's time to get to work and make your container project a success!