Finished shipping container homes start at about $25,000 for something very basic completed by someone handy. The upper end – well, there is no upper end. Luxury homes built with multiple containers can exceed $1 million.
Fad or Here to Stay?
When considering a shipping container home, it’s fair to ask if this is a trend.
The short answer is “no.” Container homes are gaining popularity. Reasons follow.
But first, here’s where this post is going. We’ll look at planning a shipping container home, necessary site prep, permits you’ll need, potential pitfalls to be aware of and the cost of a shipping container home.
Did you know? The containers are also called Conex and ISO containers or boxes. Completed container homes are also called box homes.
How Much Does a Container Home Cost?
DIY shipping container homes with bare-bone basics start at about $25,000 on top of land/property cost.
A more realistic cost range for designing and building a shipping container home is between $150,000 to $450,000, depending on the size and scope of the project.
We’ve created an itemized list of costs, and it is found at the bottom of this post.
Top 3 Reasons Container Homes Are Here to Stay:
Here are 3 reasons to consider a shipping container home, and why their number are rising.
- Using recycled shipping containers appeals to the growing number of us who want to live an environmentally responsible lifestyle.
- Conex containers are plentiful, especially near North American ports and railway yard. A recent report from the US Maritime Academy stated that approximately 5 million used containers were available for sale here. Globally, the number tops 100 million.
Containers can be trucked and delivered to anywhere, even remote, and difficult to access areas. Transport fees based on distance and current fuel prices are in the $500 to $2,500 range.
- The cost of a container home can be far less than a stick-built home with similar size and features.
Did you know? Regulations on shipping container used for homes vary by state. In most states, used containers of any age are allowed. In others, they are not.
In California for example, containers must be new or “one trippers,” meaning the container was manufactured in China, filled with goods and shipped to North America.
That’s an odd law for California, a state that seems committed to sustainability. This law eliminates recycling/re-purposing older containers.
Where to Buy a Shipping Container
Shipping containers are available from many sellers including those in eBay and Craigslist. There are many container brokers online selling various types – dry fright containers are the most common.
Insulated, refrigerated, open top containers and those on a chassis with wheels are offered.
Some local codes categorize shipping container homes with mobile and HUD homes. To qualify in this category, the container will need a chassis trailer beneath it.
Pro Tip: Make sure you’re buying from a licensed seller with documentation showing it owns the container. As the popularity of box homes grows, so do sales of stolen containers.
You have two options. Do all the planning or hire a company or contractor that specializes in designing and building shipping container homes. You can also built a new home from a blueprint.
Resource to explore: https://containerhomesusa.com/
If you’ve built a home in the past, the process will be exactly the same, except that one or more containers will form the shell of the structure rather than wood framing or concrete.
Whether you take the steps, or the contractor does, here’s an outline of the process.
- Review local codes about shipping container homes. According to HUD.gov, “Shipping containers that are converted into housing units are subject to state and local building codes like modular and site-built homes.”
Your contractor or the local authorities will help you navigate the rules and regulations for what type container home you can build – or whether they are disallowed.
- Know what you want in a shipping container home.
How many containers do you plan to use, and what size will they be? Standard containers are either 20 or 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8.5 feet tall. Odd sizes, called custom sizes, are 15, 30 and 45 feet long with the same width and height as standard boxes.
There are plenty of sites with great information about shipping container homes, designs, interior layouts, exterior cladding, cool roof gardens and cost. Take your time discovering your options and narrowing your design preferences.
If using multiple containers, will they be stacked?
Where on your property do you want to place the home?
We’ll assume at this point that you know that you have a buildable lot (https://www.24hplans.com/land-and-site-development-cost/) – either it offers city water and sewer, or you’ve had it tested and it is suitable for a septic system?
- Apply for a building permit: Once you know that a container home is OK where you live, you’ll need permission to develop the project: https://www.24hplans.com/do-i-need-a-building-permit/
You’ll have to complete the application and include other documents with it for review.
Documents to submit with a building permit application include:
Site Plan – This drawing shows your property, it’s boundaries and dimensions and permanent features such as existing buildings: https://www.24hplans.com/site-plans-permits/. The location and dimensions of the home should be included plus the location of the proposed driveway, well, septic and drain field, if applicable.
The purpose of the site plan is to demonstrate that your plan meets regulations such as property setbacks – how far off the property lines or utility easements your home must be – and that it doesn’t take up a higher percentage of the land than is allowed or is taller than allowable.
Floor Plan – This plan shows the interior layout of the home, where windows will be and the location of electrical, freshwater and sewer hookups will be: https://www.24hplans.com/product/3d-floor-plans/.
Architectural Plans – When multiple containers are joined or stacked, plans from an architect or structural engineer might be required to show that your plan is do-able and safe.
Perc Test Results – When a drain field, aka leach field, will be installed, you’ll need to show that the ground is suitable for the type you propose. The basic options are a standard, in-ground drain field or a raised, engineered mound.
- Get a Response. Your plan will be approved, denied outright (rare), or need to be modified.
Modifications are usually minor, such as making small adjustments to the building site or the site of a well, driveway or another feature.
- Get the Rest of the Permits
Once you’re permitted to install a shipping container home, you’ll need a suite of permits including all or most of these:
- Electrical permit covering the installation of an electrical pole on the property and a mast to transition power into your home – or a hookup to underground electric. The permit also covers installation of an electrical meter, box and wiring throughout the home.
- Mechanical permit covering heating, air conditioning equipment and plumbing – though plumbing is a separate permit in some cities and counties.
- Well and septic permit, unless you’re hooking up to existing water and sewer: https://www.24hplans.com/house-septic-system-installation-cost-planning-permitting/
- Construction permit covering interior construction or any exterior modifications you plan.
The permits cover the cost of inspections for each system. There are typically at least two inspections for each. For example, the Rough electrical inspection covers the electrical panel and wiring to junction boxes. The Finish inspection is done once all the electrical fixtures and hookups have been completed.
- Start the Project
Once all your permits are approved, the work on your shipping container home can start.
Potential Pitfalls & Special Considerations
Paying attention to these issues will improve the durability and performance of your container home.
Dealing with rust. If you buy a used shipping container, it will probably have some surface rust.
Most containers are made from weathering steel, aka Cor-Ten steel after a leading brand. The steel alloy inhibits rust and corrosion, but you’ll do well to coat or paint your container to stop current rust and prevent further oxidation. By keeping the surface well coated, your container home will last indefinitely.
Insulating your home. This is a top shipping container home pitfall when not done properly.
Steel has little insulation value, and you definitely don’t want to live in an “oven” or “ice box.” In most states, at least R30 is recommended for ceilings and 13R for walls, higher values in colder climates. Here are a map and insulation values recommended by the Energy Star program: https://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=home_sealing.hm_improvement_insulation_table
Space inside a container is limited to 8 feet wide and 20 or 40 feet long for standard containers. Spray foam and foam boards give you the most R-value for the thickness, which can maximize indoor space. However, they are the most expensive option.
Alternatives to traditional insulation include cotton insulation. The material is eco-friendly, made from recycled, post-consumer denim and other forms of cotton. Because the R-value is just 3.5 per inch, you’ll need about 4 inches of it to achieve minimal wall insulation requirements – even more for the ceiling.
As a result, it might be better to place this insulation on the outside of the container.
The pitfall of exterior cotton insulation is keeping it dry. If you intend to clad your container home with waterproof material, or if you cover the exterior cotton insulation in spray foam or similar, then this insulation might work for you.
Consider a green roof, a “green or living roof is a garden of sorts on your roof, with various grasses and other plants. Soil and plants aren’t great insulators, but they can help to block solar radiation if you live in a warm climate. A green roof, therefore, isn’t really a replacement for insulation, but a supplement to it.”
What to set the home on. Concrete is a popular foundation – concrete slab, piers, crawlspace or full foundation or basement. Placing the container on bare ground, even if topsoil is removed, isn’t an option in most locations. You don’t want a steel box sitting in damp soil.
Site factors such as soils, bedrock, water table and slope of the property along with your climate and budget will determine what your best option is. This is where consulting with a shipping container home expert can help you get the best value from your box home.
Getting a Shipping Container Loan
Personal loans and mortgages are available for container homes.
According to Quicken Loans broker Nathaniel Crawford, “If the home is built in compliance with the building codes for single family homes, it can be financed just like any other single-family home.”
Did you know? “A shipping container must be connected to a permanent foundation with utility hookups. If not, you won’t be able to get a mortgage,” according to the real estate investor Shawn Breyer.
You might have to shop around for a loan, since some lenders are unfamiliar with shipping container homes and are unwilling to put money into one.
Shipping Container Home Costs
Here is what you can expect in terms of costs:
Site Plan: $100 – $500+. Using site plan specialists costs less, and you’ll receive a plan of the same quality and detail as one created by an architect for a much higher cost: https://www.24hplans.com/
Permits: $1,600 – $2,400. This cost range covers the building permit application and electric, mechanical, and other permits.
Containers: $1,500 – $10,000. Size, age and shipping distance affect cost.
Shipping Cost: $500 – $2,500. The closer you are to a shipping port or major railway hub, the lower your container shipping fees will be. Some large manufacturers have containers onsite for sale. In short, you should be able to locate one within 15 to 250 miles of your building site.
Site Preparation: $500 – $5,000. You can spend more, but most building sites can be prepared in this cost range. Factors are access to the property, whether trees are removed or low areas need to be filled.
Foundation: $4,000 – $15,000 or more with excavation and materials costs. Foundation size and type are the major cost factors. Piers are cheapest; full foundations, aka basements, are the most expensive.
Well: $3,500 – $8,500. Cost factors are depth of the well and what the drill must go through to reach water. Cheap alternatives: A hand-dug well is a possibility where aquifers are not deep in the ground. Rain barrels and filters can provide enough water where rain is abundant. There are multiple types of hand-dug and hand-drilled wells: http://www.clean-water-for-laymen.com/hand-dug-wells.html
Septic and Drain Field: $3,500 – $12,000. Conventional drain fields are much cheaper than mound systems, which start at about $8,000 but typically cost about $12,000. Cheap alternatives: Buy the tanks, piping, sand, and other materials. Rent a backhoe and build your own. The engineer that inspects the property will produce a drawing that is easy to follow. It will show what layers of material, and what depth, must be used. The piping will be diagrammed, too. The network consists of PVC pipe glued together over the drain bed. An even cheaper alternative where allowed is a pit toilet or, better yet, a composting toilet.
Water & Sewer Connections: $1,500 – $5,500. Costs vary quite a bit based on property location and the distance from the main lines that run along the road to your home.
Heating and Air Conditioning: $3,500 – $12,500+. A wood stove DIY installed with no AC starts at less than $1,000 if you find one used and in good condition. Adding a ductless heat pump system with multiple indoor units or a geothermal system at $25,000+ are among the costliest ways to go.
Structural Modifications: $3,500 – $25,000. Cutting out sections of steel for doors and windows is costly. Cost goes up when more than one container is stacked or otherwise connected. Elaborate designs involve a lot of welds, and welders are paid well.
Interior Construction and Finish: $6,500 – $80,000. You can spend more! The factors are whether your home has one, two or more containers and the quality of the materials you use.
Obviously, laminate countertops cost a lot less than granite. Vinyl flooring is cheaper than genuine hardwood. And there is a huge cost range in every finish material and fixture you select.
There is an equally broad range of materials, styles and costs when shopping for windows and doors.
Exterior Cladding/Siding: $2,500 – $15,000. A fresh coat of corrosion-resistant paint that you apply is an affordable exterior solution. Wood siding and other upgraded materials cost more.
Driveway & Walkways: $3,000 to $12,000. Factors are material and size. Common materials are gravel, asphalt, and concrete. Paver stones and acid-stained and stamped concrete might cost more.
Solar Power System: $10,000 to $18,500. You’ll need a 3kW to 6kW system to power a home built with one to three shipping containers. For this cost range, you’ll get solar PV panels, inverter, battery (optional item costing an additional $7,000 to $10,000) and wiring.
Is a Container Home Right for You?
Do plenty of research. Visit a bunch of shipping container homes. Find an Airbnb container home to stay in for several days. The more informed you are about what they are, their pros, cons, limitations and possibilities, the better decisions you’ll make about your future in a shipping container home.
You may not have liked every single design we presented here, but you must have understood two things:
- Shipping container houses are significantly cheaper to build than regular homes. They are very resource efficient and can be made to look like regular houses.
- You will need a building permit to build or install a container house, and you’ll likely need a site plan in order to obtain the building permit.
Note: Here’s how we can help: 24hplans has a team of highly trained, professional architects and drafters who can prepare any kind of site plan in the shortest amount of time possible, so that you can easily obtain that building permit and get on with your project. Use the promotion code: 24hplans-20off to get a 20% discount off any package. — Please note this is a limited time offer, exclusive to the readers of our blog. This offer is not being advertised anywhere else.