Once a fringe concept, shipping container homes have solidified their place of interest in the mainstream for being durable, versatile, and aesthetically-interesting shelters for seasonal and full-time living.
No longer just for transporting goods from port to port, shipping containers—also called intermodal containers and high cube containers—can be successfully converted into everything from tiny homes and cozy cabins to multi-level compounds.
Interested in the possibilities and realities of container home living? This deep dive guide is for container-curious folks who want to know more about living life inside the box. In this expert-driven article, we share everything you need to know about custom container living, including pro tips on buying shipping containers and how to save some cash during your build process. So read on and dig in!
What Is a Shipping Container Home?
First things first, a container home is a small living space converted from one or more, new or repurposed shipping containers into a custom modern home. Since a standard high cube shipping container is typically 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet, shipping container homes have a minimum 160 or 320 square foot floor plan to work with, though depending on how many you stack together you can achieve considerable square footage quite easily.
Unlike traditional housing and other types of popular alternative living spaces like prefab or tiny houses, container dwellings have the added benefit of being easily scalable. And of course, the industrial aesthetic is truly unique, especially when set in a natural setting.
Advantages of a Shipping Container Home
Built of durable, weather-resistant steel that’s made to take a beating during international travel, shipping containers are designed purely for function. As mentioned, modularity allows you to stack more than one high cube container to create a larger floor plan and overall living space within the scope of a larger container home design. Containers also have standard dimensions, which can make designing a home more straightforward.
Another advantage is price (more on this below). Shipping containers are relatively inexpensive with an average price of between $1,500 and $5,000 depending on size and whether it's new or used, making them much cheaper to build with than lumber and other building materials for a traditional house. A recycled shipping container is also an eco-friendly option because it utilizes existing materials rather than new.
Pro tip: aim to buy your container(s) in November or December, says Devon Loerop, owner and builder of The Pacific Bin, which in just one year has become the most followed home on Instagram. During the holidays there is usually a surplus of containers in North America, making it easier to find a deal and save money when buying used containers.
In the same vein as the increasingly popular Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), building a shipping container house is another way to utilize alternative methods to create more livable space—be it a guest house, vacation home, or even a workspace. By design, container homes are a fairly low maintenance and even transportable home that can be a great investment for the DIY-minded homeowner.
Disadvantages of Building a Container Home
Like any dwelling, there are pros and cons here too, whether you’re building and buying. One of the main disadvantages of shipping container homes is insulation and temperature control. Steel is an excellent conductor of heat, which means that without proper foam insulation, shipping container homes can become very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Insulating a shipping container effectively can be a challenge, and it often requires adding insulation to both the interior and exterior, which can increase construction costs and reduce interior space. More on this further below.
Another common disadvantage of building with shipping containers is navigating building code and zoning challenges. Depending on your location, there may be strict building codes and zoning regulations that govern the use of shipping containers as homes—or even disallow them. In many instances building regulations have been established decades before the advent of innovative building practices like prefabrication, so it's not uncommon to find local regulations (and town committees, code enforcers, and building permit issuers) to be rather outdated and uncompromising. As such, obtaining the necessary permits and approvals can be a complex and time-consuming process—you may need to seek a number of variances in order to be granted a certificate of occupancy (CO).
For these same reasons, finding home insurance and/or construction loans by conventional banks may be tough for shipping container home owners and builders, too. Or it all can be super simple. It all depends on where you want to build.
In terms of design limitations, you can stack multiple shipping containers to create a house, but the containers themselves are not endlessly customizable. Picking your living room, sleeping quarters, door locations, etc is easy, but unfortunately heavy modification can reduce the structural integrity of a container, so keep in mind you will have limited layout options when designing your dream container home.
Container Home Building Logistics
Prefab vs DIY
From turnkey properties to customized builds, shipping container homes come in all shapes and sizes. There isn't just one way to convert these steel cubes into an inviting space—there are two: purchase a prefab container home or DIY.
A prefabricated (prefab) container house is built off-site by a qualified manufacturer and arrives ready-made. The obvious benefit is owning an almost move-in ready home (you'll still have to take care of the land, foundation, and connect utilities) which eliminates nearly all of the heavy lifting and construction.
The major downside to this is having less freedom to choose key design elements such as the floor plan, fixtures, and finishings. However, the trade-off is a professionally built habitable structure. And it's worth mentioning that some prefab container home manufacturers can also assist buyers with the finer points of the area's building codes, zoning laws, and permit requirements, which may be factor into your final decision.
The DIY route is the only way to get everything on your list and have complete control in the building and design process. But this also puts all of the responsibility on the homeowner turned builder, designer, and project manager. Researching floor plans, sourcing and installing all of the materials, and selecting every last detail of the home down to the "studs" takes time. And be prepared to hire professionals for specialized jobs like structural reinforcements, plumbing, and electricity.
What to Know About Stacking Containers
Shipping containers are designed to stack corner to corner, like you see on ships and in ports. If you want to stack containers in an unconventional way, or cut out big windows and doorways, it's important to note additional budget and work will be required. “If you're building a one-story container home, it's really a breeze. But the second you go up a floor, just know there's going be a lot of added costs and added structural reinforcement needed, especially if you're stacking in the non-conventional way,” explains Washington State-based builder Devon Loerop.
“When you turn containers 90 degrees and they're not stacked on the corners, and that's when you have to look at some serious structural reinforcement. It makes for a really cool design, but it's going be a bit of a headache. So you really want to do your due diligence and dive into understanding structural steel, what it's going to take to make your home 100% rock solid, and how that is going to affect the inside of your design.”
Want to build your own Pacific Bin? Loerop sells complete construction plans. Use code "FM20" to save 20% off.
Insulating Your Container Home
Metal is inherently a bad insulator so condensation is quick to form when it’s hot inside and cold outside or vice versa. For this reason, closed cell foam should be used for shipping container homes because it acts as vapor barrier as well as an insulator. If traditional insulation is used moisture in the form of condensation can cause corrosion, mold, and mildew to build up over time, which can be hazardous and dangerous.
Now, closed cell foam can be expensive, especially if you have to reach a specified thickness for R value to meet inspection (keep in mind building codes and requirements will vary by location and climate). “I paid something like $32,000 to do a closed cell spray foam,” shares Loerop of his Pacific Bin build.
But in hindsight, this one clever technique could have saved him thousands: "A way to save a ton of money is to just apply a very thin layer of closed cell spray foam on the inside of your walls—like three quarter to an inch thick. That will add a little insulation but the main thing is it's creating a vapor barrier for you to then roll in typical batt installation. That alone will probably save you like $15,000 on insulating your home.”
Container Home Costs
Building a custom container home can be significantly cheaper than a traditional home primarily because of the smaller footprint and materials. Before the project begins, take some time to run the numbers and set a realistic budget. Below is an overview of the main expenses for a DIY container home build—as it goes with any project, be sure to round up!
The total should include the cost of land, the containers themselves (from $1,500 to $5,000), delivery, site prep, a foundation, and permits.
Like any new home build, the shipping container home budget should also include enough to cover the building materials, as well as windows, doors, flooring, plus other interior and exterior finishings to make the space habitable and aesthetic. Hardy DIYers can save money on paid labor in a container home build, but for others, hiring professionals or buying a prefab container home can be a necessary albeit pricier option.
Of course, the cost will increase if you opt for a larger floor plan (meaning multiple containers and more construction materials), high-end fixtures and finishings, and add-ons like a rooftop deck or outdoor patio.
On average, the minimum amount homeowners should expect to spend on a completely finished 40-foot container home DIY build is $30,000-$40,0000. For an itemized list and full breakdown of the costs of this type of build, check out this video from a general contractor who converted a 40-foot shipping container himself using high-end materials and no additional paid labor, for just $33,000.
As previously mentioned, a prefab container home will inherently cost more in exchange for a beautiful, high-quality dwelling. Scroll through our list below of modern prefab container home builders to scope out the wide range of prices and options available on the market.
Surveying Pro Tip
Another cost saving tip from Loerop that's most relevant to rural builders of all project types pertains to property surveying. “I paid for like $8,000 for a site survey that was just completely not needed because I thought I had to be pinpoint accurate on where the home is located versus my construction plans,” Loerop shares about his property The Pacific Bin. But turns out, “if it's off five, 10 feet one way or another and you have four or five acres, it does not matter all that much. You can just open your phone and see the property lines on Google Maps and your location [while walking the property] and it should get you within five, 10 feet of accurate."
It’s little things like this that can save you considerable money on your total build cost. The beauty of doing it yourself!
Prefab Container Home Builders & Floor Plans
Frequently Asked Questions
How much do container homes cost?
The cost of a container home varies widely based on several factors, like the square feet, location, design, required modifications, permits, and labor costs required to install or set up the container. Generally, smaller container homes can start around $20,000 to $50,000 for a basic setup, while larger, more customized versions can range from $100,000 to $250,000 or more.
Is it cheaper to build a house or a container home?
It can be cheaper to build a container home compared to a traditional house, especially with smaller or simpler designs. Ultimately, the cost comparison depends on various factors like size, location, design complexity, required modifications, and the quality of materials used
How long do container homes last?
Container homes are typically clad in Corten steel, which is designed to withstand harsh marine conditions during shipping for about 10-12 years without significant corrosion. However, with proper home maintenance and treatment, container homes can last several decades.