What to Know About Shipping Container Homes

Whether as a tiny home or an ambitious multi-story project, shipping container homes offer an affordable, versatile way to build a durable residence.

Boxy, right-angle-filled shipping container homes are still something of a novelty in most places. But expect to be seeing a lot more of them. A 2019 report on shipping container homes predicts that by 2025, container homes will be a $73 billion global industry.

Popular as a DIY project for small building lots, with tiny home enthusiasts, and as a public housing solution in overcrowded areas, shipping container homes can solve a lot of housing needs. Let’s take a closer look at shipping container homes, and whether one is right for you.

What Is a Shipping Container Home?

Shipping container homes are single- or multi-family residences that use new or used shipping containers as their primary material. The containers, built for holding cargo on transoceanic crossings, are made of heavy-duty, corrosion-resistant steel. Because they’re designed to hold tons of cargo and be stacked one on top of another during long ocean voyages, shipping containers are extremely durable and weather- and water-resistant.

They offer homeowners the versatility to build a tiny home with a single container; connect several containers to form a larger one-story residence; or stack, often cantilever-style, multiple containers to create a unique and modern multi-story home. In low-income or densely populated areas, shipping container projects provide a way to create safe, affordable, high-density public housing.

Where Do Shipping Containers Come From and How Do You Buy One?

Most shipping containers are fabricated in China, filled with cargo and shipped around the world. New containers are often used only one time — on a one-way trip — because it’s more advantageous for the shipping company to sell the container than it is to return it empty to its point of origin. These are sold either as “one-trip” or new containers.

Used shipping containers that made more than one trip are less desirable for container homes. Why? Their water-tightness may have been compromised, and they are more likely to be damaged.

To build a container home, prospective owners must purchase new or used containers and have them delivered to their building site. Containers are available from resellers across the U.S.; simply Googling “shipping containers near me” should turn up a range of options. They mostly come in two sizes, 20 feet or 40 feet, although 45-foot models are also available. These containers have an internal width and height of seven feet, 10 inches.

Forty-foot containers are also available in what’s called “high-cube” models. These shipping containers have another foot of height and are popular for container homes. New, standard and high-cube 40-foot containers cost between $3,800 and $5,000 each. Buyers must pay for the delivery of the containers to their building site. Fees are based on distance, but figure on paying at least several hundred dollars per container.

How Much Do Container Homes Cost?

Costs for shipping container homes vary, depending on how many containers are used, how large the containers are, and how elaborate the design and finishes are.

A “keys-in-hand” container home from Texas-based Stackhouse Container Homes costs from $50,000 for a 20-footer. For $200,000 and up, the company will build on your lot a spacious two-story home composed of several containers, complete with a roof deck. If you buy your own containers and hire contractors to do all the work, figure on spending between $15,000 and $25,000 per container. This article from 24hPlans.com shows several finished container homes and what it cost to build them.

Future container homeowners with advanced DIY skills can save money by doing most of the work themselves. Jessica and Vaillant Passecker are the couple behind Pacific Pines Ranch, an ambitious container home on the Oregon coast comprised of seven containers. Jessica says the pair have done all the work themselves, including pouring foundations and digging their septic tank drainfield.

“Container projects usually require a lot of custom work and welding, which can make the overall cost astronomical,” she says. “We’ve also bought a lot of our materials second-hand or made them when needed, and this has allowed us to stay on track.”

Though she declined to say how much they’ve spent so far, Jessica says they stayed within budget and expect the two-year project to wind up in late 2021.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Building a Container Home?

Pros:

Versatility. Container homes can be stacked up to eight containers high, and, as Jessica says, “they’re modular units and can be arranged in almost any way with the right structural engineering.”

Durability. The shipping containers were built to withstand extreme conditions at sea and rough handling in transit, so they are safe and durable in every kind of weather and environment. According to container builder Falcon Structures, shipping containers go through a rigorous verification process that ensures they can withstand winds of 180 mph — stronger than most hurricane-force winds.

Cost-savings. Building a DIY container home can be cost-effective. But even buying a ready-made or custom-made model is usually significantly cheaper than the same-sized traditional “sticks and bricks” house.

Quick construction. Once permitting and site prep are done, pre-fab container homes can be built in as little as 10 weeks. Timing on DIY projects will vary depending on the complexity of the build. But having the basic structure ready at the outset is a time-saver in any case.

Cons:

Lots of work for a little space. Unfinished shipping containers require a lot of work to be livable. Gary Wentz, Editor-in-Chief of Family Handyman magazine, points out that all of the framing, plumbing, wiring and insulation take up space inside the container, and often derail the budget. “All you really save on is the cost and labor of siding,” he says. “And with framing inside, an already small space gets even smaller.”

NIMBY. Container homes are not permitted everywhere, and owners often have to purchase land in rural areas with looser zoning restrictions. Check your local zoning rules before you start planning that shipping container dream home.

Structural issues. Your shipping container could have invisible damage that compromises its structural soundness. And Wentz says cutting windows, doors and passageways into the sides of the container, aside from being difficult, means those areas will need to be reinforced and sealed.

Dubious eco-cred. When good-as-new shipping containers are taken out of circulation and turned into homes, that’s not exactly good for the environment. Containers contain at least 10 times the steel that would be used for a traditional home.

Ultimately, constructing and living in a shipping container home is a lifestyle choice for those who like the novelty, modern style and ability to use containers to custom-design a modular home.