What Is a Shipping Container Home?

by Tessa Hobart | LAST UPDATED November 15, 2021

Shipping container home
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The answer to the question is as obvious as you might think—a shipping container home is a living space housed within a storage container.

However, there is a bit of nuance when it comes to the home design on the inside and whether or not you modify the outside of your shipping container house and the overall floor plans.

We’ll get to the sort of buildings that you can make using containers in just a bit, but for now, all you need to know about these tiny homes is that they’re a lot more practical than many people assume.

Price of Shipping Container Homes

The price of an average shipping container is somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000, and this mainly depends on the company you buy them from. The size of the containers also matters, and opting for the 20-foot or the 40-foot ones can make a load of difference.

You might be able to find used shipping containers that are twice as cheap, but they might be damaged or have rust. In the worst case, they might have even been used to transport something that would require you to fumigate before you can live inside. All in all, spending a few thousand isn’t as bad as finding out that the old container that you bought is defective in some way, so we’d suggest going new.

Regardless of how much you spend on the container, it’s significantly less than all the other modular homes on the market. This low price range is exactly why a lot of people believe that they can build a custom home for as little as $20,000, but that’s not even close to true.

For starters, you’ll need to set up pipes and a basic foundation. Next, you’ll have to install the tiny house itself and build it up. Finally, you just can’t do without furniture and windows or doors.

If you’re trying to build a custom container home by yourself, then all of this together is going to come to around $30,000, if not more, whereas buying a tiny prefab home like the Honomobo HO2 can set you back as much as $100,000.

Simply put, there isn’t a fixed price range for these sorts of houses, and the overall cost will depend on a lot of things. Whether you go DIY or employ builders, the materials you choose, and whether you decide to go for a one-bedroom guesthouse or a three-bedroom mansion will all impact the final bill.

Local Building Codes

If you do decide on a container home, you should first learn about the pertinent zoning laws before getting into any construction work.

The exact restrictions that you might face will depend on where you live since almost every state has its own zoning laws. Luckily, regardless of whether you live in Texas or Colorado, you can easily find all of the necessary information on your local government web page or by simply paying a visit to your city’s building inspector.

Rather than restrictions that prohibit you from making homes out of recycled shipping containers due to the materials that are used, the biggest problem is going to be minimal building size laws.

Since they’re not traditional homes, container buildings are categorized as alternative living spaces. And while there are no specific laws that state what can and cannot be considered a home, there is a particular stipulation on the size of these homes.

Simply put, to build a house on your property, the structure must meet a certain square-foot minimum. The exact minimum will depend on where you live, but a standard-sized 20-foot container with a single living room definitely doesn’t cut it.

Therefore you have two choices: join together two 20-foot shipping containers and fuse their sides together into one structure, or get a 40-foot container and build it out with a porch and a few additional elements.

We should also mention that if you already own real estate that has a standard-sized house on the property, you can simply categorize the container home as a guest house, and you won’t need to meet these size regulations since the primary house already does that.

Building Materials

shipping container home

Container living wouldn’t be very comfortable if you moved into an empty metal box without modifying it first.

First of all, you’ll need to put wooden boards on the floor and drywall on your walls and ceiling. This will help with heat retention since metal isn’t exactly known to be the best choice of insulation in the cold winter months. Additionally, this also makes your living area feel more like a home and less like the inside of a soup can.

Next, put a slanted or a triangular roof on top of your home and add a layer of paint on the outside walls. The roof will prevent water from accumulating on top when it rains, and zinc paint will prevent the metal from rusting too easily from being exposed to the elements.

The final modification is going to involve the windows and the doors. You’ll rip off the giant metal doors that come with every shipping container and put in a new wall with a built-in door.

When it comes to the windows, you’d want them to be sized so that a bit of light comes through and into your house, but making too many oversized holes on the side of the container for large windows can weaken the structural integrity of the building, so be careful.

Shipping Container Architecture

The biggest advantage of the shipping container home is that you can use the simple structure to easily design a home that fits your taste and requirements; however, there are also a few other benefits that come from this simplistic design.

Adding any sort of additional element is much easier since all you need to do is attach another container to a sidewall. This method will allow you to make your shipping container longer or wider by however much you want it to be.

Keep in mind that adding containers vertically isn’t something that you can do on your own, and that’s the point where you need to leave the building to the professionals. Even if you can rent out a crane and stack the containers yourself, making a mistake during the welding or not knowing how to add supports can end in disaster.

We should also mention that joining two containers together at the ground level isn’t easy either, and it’ll require a solid foundation to be placed beneath them. Otherwise, they will shift and dislodge.

You’ll also need to know where the pipes and utilities will be placed ahead of time so you can connect them accordingly. That is unless you’re going for a more eco-friendly off-grid container home that runs primarily on solar panels.

Prefabricated Homes

A DIY shipping container home is undoubtedly the more cost-effective option since you won’t need to pay for the manpower or the work hours. On the other hand, getting professional home builders to do the construction for you will result in a more dependable construction in a fraction of the time.

If you’re interested in checking out some of the alternative options that you might have, then we’d suggest seeing any modular home builders that you might have near you. These are also called prefabricated homes, and the difference between them and tiny homes is that they’re made off-site and then shipped and installed on your property.

The company in charge of building these homes takes care of all of the necessary paperwork and zoning law headaches that we mentioned before, and they also install the base and all of the piping as well.

In essence, they handle everything from A to Z, and while it’s quite a bit costlier than a DIY job, there’s less risk of something happening or someone getting hurt during the construction process, and it’s also safe to say that they’ll deliver a higher quality finished product as well.

Additionally, you can also get a bit more creative during the planning stages as well since the professionals can build structures that you could never even figure out. This may allow you to add second-floor lofts, a balcony, and even a six container house stacked 3x3.


shipping container homes

The items that we listed above are only a few of the reasons why many homeowners have become attracted to the idea of owning a shipping container home more recently. They’re easy to build and modify, and as long as you’re realistic with your expectations, it can cost you less than renting an average-sized Airbnb condo in New York for a year.

Their sustainability due to their small size also makes them a great option as an off-grid home.

Add all of this together, and you can see why these buildings are popular enough to be used as rentals in places like New Zealand and Costa Rica.

Tessa Hobart
Tessa Hobart moved into her first tiny home (a trailer in her uncle's backyard) when she was 19. Without giving away her age, she now has many years of tiny home experience and is currently designing an A-Frame as a second off grid home. She lives with her husband and enjoys card games and mountain biking.

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