10 Questions To Ask Before Buying A Shipping Container

Buying a shipping container is an exciting project. While these boxes may not look like much, they are anything but simple. Since they are widely-available, sturdy, relatively cheap, airtight, and watertight, you can repurpose them into pretty much anything. Alternatively, they can be used as simple storage containers that can hold a lot of stuff and require little maintenance.

However, before you go off and buy the first shipping container you find on the internet, know that there is a lot to consider if you want your purchase to fulfill your expectations.

Below, we've identified and answered 11 of the most important questions you should ask yourself before buying a shipping container.

Why Are You Buying a Shipping Container?

The first question you need to have a clear answer to is why you want a shipping container. When used for construction, they are actually relatively inexpensive. However, it's likely you're still going to spend at least $800-$1,000 (though some can cost you upwards of $5,000), so it's important you have a clear idea of what it is you want.

Here are some of the main reasons why people buy shipping containers, as well as a few things to keep in mind about each application:


Shipping containers were designed to hold lots of stuff. Therefore, they make great storage units for people with a big enough property to hold one. You can use them in addition to or instead of a garage, or if you have a lot of things to store, you can stack them and maximize your space.

When using a shipping container for storage, you generally don't need to worry about its looks. If it's a bit rusty or dinged up, this shouldn't matter, and buying one in this condition can help you save some money.

However, depending on what you are storing, you will want to make sure the container has maintained its watertight properties so what's inside doesn't get wet. It's probably not quite as vital that it remains airtight, but again, this depends on what you're planning to put inside.

Home Construction

Because of their versatility, durability, and water- and airtight properties, turning shipping containers into homes has become a significant trend in modern architecture. These homes represent an eco-friendly alternative to traditional construction because they are well-insulated, protected against the elements, and they also help reduce waste; there are literally millions of these things scattered in ports and depots around the world, just sitting there and taking up space.

If you're using your shipping container to build a home, then you're going to want to spend some time thinking about design, as this will help you determine which container(s) to buy.

Typically, it's best for these types of applications to go for containers in better condition, which means they will still be insulated and look good.

However, if you're planning on doing lots of modifications to the container, the condition might not matter. It's typically more important to go after better-quality containers when you plan to keep the box intact and simply turn it into a home.

One thing to consider if design and construction is not your strong suit is a pre-fabricated container home, also known as prefabs. These structures are containers that have already been converted into houses, and so you don't really need to do anything at all.

Of course, these are quite a bit more expensive, and your home is not going to be "unique" since there will be more than one of your specific design. Yet this is something to consider if you would like a shipping container home but aren't sure exactly how to make one.

Other Construction

Don't get fooled into thinking that storage and home construction are the only options when repurposing shipping containers. Here are just a few of the many different things you can use shipping containers for:

  • Offices – Combining multiple shipping containers into one structure can create a chic workspace that is also relatively cost-effective compared to building with traditional materials. Go for better quality containers that need little modification.
  • Restaurants – Using shipping containers to build a restaurant is a great way to be trendy and exciting. Typically, for this to work, you will need to modify multiple containers. This means you can go for less expensive models and fix them up during the construction process.
  • Hotels – Shipping containers are great for hotels since you can easily stack them on top of one another. Since cleanliness and efficiency will be key for this type of construction, it's best to go with higher-quality containers or come up with some sort of extensive modification process that will get each box in tip-top shape.
  • Box farms – As the world continues to face food production challenges, growing inside is rapidly becoming an exciting solution. Many people are embarking on this type of project as a business venture, but be careful when doing this since costs can quickly add up. To use a container as a box farm, you need to make considerable modifications. You'll also want to make sure the insulation and other temperature control elements are still intact so that you can control the environment and grow successfully.
  • Swimming pools – Because of their shape and size, shipping containers make great swimming pools. All you need to do is dig a hole and drop it in. However, you need to make sure the container is still watertight for this to work, which you can do by educating yourself on the various grades of shipping containers (described in detail below).

As you can see, there are many, many uses for shipping containers. Some applications require newer, more specialized containers, and others can be created with more basic, less-expensive models.

We're going to discuss the many different types of containers that are out there, but for all of this information to make sense, it's crucial that you first have a very clear idea as to why you want a container.

This will help make the search process that much easier and help you avoid buying something that doesn't meet your needs.

Which Type of Container Do You Want?

After you have a clear idea of what you want to do with your shipping container, you will want to figure out which type of container will best fit your needs. Below is a summary of the different types of containers you will find on today's market:

  • Dry-freight – The most common type of container. These are typically 20' long and open on one end. They are also watertight and airtight, and they come with a door that can be locked for added security.
  • Open-top – Designed to carry things such as coal or grain that need loading from the top, these containers look just like dry-freight containers, but they simply don't have a roof. This makes them great for certain projects, such as a swimming pool, but terrible for others, such as a home. If you decide to go with an open-top container, make sure you have a specific plan as to why you're using this type.
  • Insulated containers – Standard dry-freight containers are somewhat insulated because they are airtight. Still, there are other models out there that are explicitly designed to keep the goods inside at a specific temperature. However, most of these containers are designed to keep things cool or cold (most can hold temperatures between 53°F to -13°F/12° to -25° C) rather than warm. This feature can be useful for those looking to use a container as a home, hotel, restaurant, office, etc. You will need to make fewer modifications to make the container fully insulated against the outside temperature.
  • Refrigerated containers – More commonly called "reefers," these containers are designed to carry goods that must be kept at cold temperatures. They come equipped with incredibly effective refrigeration units. Depending on where you live and what you plan to do with your container, these can be a great way to skip steps during construction and save some money on your overall project.
  • Hardtops – Built with reinforced roofs, these containers are great for those who want to stack more than one container to build a larger structure or those who want to use the top of the container for some other purpose.
  • Ventilated containers – One of the many benefits of using a shipping container for construction is that they are airtight. If you're using it to build a home, then this might be a good idea since you would need to cut holes into a standard container to allow air to pass through it for breathing. Ventilated containers are great for things such as box farms, too.
  • Cube containers – We'll discuss the different container sizes in a minute, but know that some containers come as cubes, not as rectangles. The real benefit of this is that they can hold more weight, so they are suitable for those planning to use the container primarily for storage.

There are other types of containers out there, but these are the ones you're most likely to find when shopping. Spend some time thinking about which one would be best for your specific project, and then you can use these criteria to help narrow your search and more easily find the right container for you.

How Big Do You Need the Container to Be?

After you pick the type of container you are going to buy, you need to figure out how big you want it to be. For this question, there is no right answer. It will be entirely dependent on your needs.

All containers have an 8' x 8' opening, but they vary in how long they are.

The most common container length is 20 feet, followed by 40 feet. You can also find smaller containers that are 10' and 12' long, as well as cubed containers that are 8' long.

The primary difference is the amount of stuff you can put inside. Longer containers can fit more things, but they also have lower weight thresholds. Because of the way they distribute the weight, cubed containers can carry more. However, the standard 20' and 40' containers can still carry up to 4,000 pounds, so it's unlikely this will be a significant concern for most projects.

Of course, if none of these sizes are suitable for your project, then you can always order a custom container that is the exact size you want.

However, keep in mind that doing this means purchasing a brand-new container straight from the manufacturer. Not only is this a higher cost, but it also takes away some of the environmental benefits of container architecture since making a new container requires extracting new resources. It does not make use of the many millions of containers already in existence.

What Is the Condition of the Container?

After size and price, the condition is the next most important thing to consider. We mentioned earlier when describing the different projects you can do with a container that some projects require newer, higher-quality containers. You can complete others with older, more rundown boxes.

Fortunately, almost everything in the shipping container world is standardized, so you only need to learn a few words to know the condition of a container while you're shopping. The three grades of shipping containers are:

  • Cargo worthy – These are the "like new" containers that could still be used to transport goods, but aren't for one reason or another. In most cases, the only damage that you'll see are small dents or rust spots, but the defects are purely cosmetic. They won't have any impact on the function of the container.
  • Watertight/airtight – Containers graded as "watertight/airtight" will have quite a few more cosmetic defects than cargo worthy containers. However, they are guaranteed to maintain their watertight and airtight properties. For most, this is going to be just fine. It will just depend if you can put up with the dents and rust spots, which for these containers could be large and significant.
  • As is – The lowest grade, these containers are usually quite damaged and are often no longer watertight and/or airtight. In some cases, there may even be some structural damage that could seriously impact their performance. When buying these containers, it's best to try and arrange to see them in person before purchasing so you don't wind up with something that you can't even use.

How Much Do You Want to Spend?

The specific nature of your project will determine the container grade you need, but so will your budget. In general, shipping containers are inexpensive, especially when you compare them to the cost of traditional materials and the labor required to build with them. But they still can cost you a pretty penny.

You can usually find "as is" grade containers for less than $1,000. On the other side of things, a 20' "cargo worthy" container can cost you up to $5,000. Insulated and refrigerated boxes will cost even more, but again, it all depends on the quality.

In general, though, you should be able to find a container that fits the needs of your project for between $2,000-$4,000.

If this seems like too much, and you only need the container temporarily, one option is to rent it. This usually costs a few hundred dollars per month, and since you're renting, you obviously can't do any modifications to it. Renting is really only an option for those looking for some short-term storage.

Can You Inspect the Container Before Making a Purchase?

Although these different grades give you an idea of a container's quality, there is some variation. To make sure you're buying what you actually want, we recommend making sure you can inspect the container before purchasing it.

Whether or not you will be able to do this will depend on where you're shopping.

You can find containers online through Craigslist or Facebook marketplace sites, but if you're searching outside your area, you likely won't be able to inspect.

Another place to look is at your local port or depot. They often have extra containers that aren't being used and will sell them to you for an excellent price. However, in these scenarios, the containers are usually buried deep in stacks with other containers, so it's not always possible to inspect before you purchase. You may be able to arrange not to finalize the sale until the container has been brought out from the stacks, and you can see it in person.

These two options will lead to the greatest savings, but the third option – going through a container broker or dealer – will be the easiest. They can help you locate the container you need, offer guarantees about its condition, and even help you arrange delivery. Of course, this does come at a small premium, but it's often worth it, especially if this is the first time you are purchasing a shipping container.

How Will You Deliver the Container to Your Property?

You will want to start thinking early on about how you will get your container to your property. The cheapest way to do this is to pick it up yourself, but this requires a flatbed truck large enough to carry the container as well as a forklift. Of course, you need to have all the proper licensing and training to operate such equipment.

If you aren't comfortable doing this, you can work with a private freight line to have the container moved to your property. This service's going rate is around $5 per mile, which is another reason why trying to buy these things locally is a good idea.

Dealers and wholesalers will often help you coordinate shipping and may even include it in the price. Again, you will likely pay a bit more for this convenience, but it's often the best thing you can do for those unfamiliar with this type of project.

Where Will You Put the Container?

You'll also want to spend some time thinking about where the container will go on your property. Figuring this out first will make your project a lot easier since you will be able to have the delivery company place the container in its final home.

In general, all containers need is a flat, dry piece of land. If you don't have this on your property, you will need to hire someone to come out with a bulldozer and create some space.

Containers are pretty sturdy on their own, but if you are building a house or some other permanent structure, you need to consider a proper foundation. In most cases, you might not need much more than a concrete slab.

One thing to keep in mind is wind. Since they're made of steel, these containers tend to howl when winds pick up. You can dampen this with sound insulation, but you can save some money by placing it in a spot that's out of the wind.

If you're unsure if a spot is going to be suitable, ask someone. The freight company may be willing to come out and inspect your property to see if there is a good location. If you're working with a contractor to modify your container, they may also help.

Who's Going to Do the Remodeling?

There are only two possible answers to this question: you or someone else.

If you're going to do the remodeling, make sure you know what you're doing. You will likely need to cut into steel, weld, blow insulation, and more, all projects that your average DIYer is not equipped to do. However, doing things on your own will be cheaper, and it will give you more control over the project.

The recommended route is to work with a contractor, but since shipping container construction is still somewhat new, make sure there is someone in the area who is willing and able to do the work.

Getting your dream container to your home but not being able to do anything with it (or having to pay someone extra to come from afar) is a real disaster scenario. So make sure to look into this before you start shopping around for your container.

Are There Any Building Codes Related to Shipping Containers in Your Area?

Lastly, you'll want to check in to see if there are any permit requirements or building codes related to shipping containers in your area. Shipping container architecture has been around since the 1980s, but it's still not entirely mainstream. Therefore, some towns have laws specific to containers, but others don't, yet they are subject to other building codes.

By working with a reputable contractor, you should be able to answer all of these questions. Otherwise, you may need to work with your town hall to see what rules are in place.

It's imperative you do this before you even start shopping, as permits and other building codes can have a significant impact on what you can do. If you don't get the proper approval and then start construction anyway, not only can the authorities shut you down, but they can hit you with hefty fines that will further complicate your project.

Launch Your Container Dream Today

As you can see, there is a lot to consider before you buy a shipping container. However, with proper planning done by answering these questions, you can reduce the stress and help plan a project that will not only meet your expectations but remind you that anything you dream up is possible.