shipping container house exterior

Shipping Container Homes: A Complete Guide

Lauren Nowacki7-Minute Read
February 07, 2022

What comes to mind for most when thinking of shipping containers are those big steel boxes you see on semi-trucks or cargo ships – a tool strictly used to transport goods across land and sea. What many don’t consider is that once out of commission, these structures are abandoned and left to take up much-needed space in junkyards or landfills.

But they don’t have to.

Trend-setting homeowners across the globe have found a new way to reclaim and use old shipping containers – by living in them.

Shipping container homes give new life to these steel structures and add refreshing and inspiring architecture to the housing industry. But for many container home enthusiasts, these innovative accommodations are much more than just a roof and walls – they represent untapped potential and an exciting new lifestyle. Want to know more about container homes and what they have to offer? Keep reading.  

What Is A Shipping Container Home?

Shipping container homes are residences built out of shipping containers. Due to their smaller size (usually 160 or 320 square feet), they’re a popular option in the tiny home movement. And since these repurposed structures cut down on building materials and coincide with a minimalist and sustainable lifestyle, they’re usually considered to be an eco-friendly type of home.

Why Shipping Containers?

Shipping containers may seem like a random choice for the world of real estate and architecture, but their very purpose makes them a logical option for housing.

Not only are shipping containers an abundant resource with an excess around the world, but they’re constructed to be extremely durable. Built with the intent of transporting cargo for long periods of time and to withstand weather and age, it’s no surprise these modular structures have potential outside of transportation.

What’s Behind The Expansion In Shipping Container Housing?

Shipping container homes – and their accompanying lifestyle – capture many of the trends and values which have been popularized among young homeowners. Not only are shipping container homes affordable and environmentally conscious, but social media has made them fun and aspirational. Let’s take a deeper look at the allure of these alternative homes.  

Stylish Design

One of the most enticing aspects of owning a container home is its aesthetic. It’s likely that shipping container homes can fit whatever style you have in mind, and although they’re frequently associated with tiny homes, container homes offer more flexibility with space since they can be stacked and configured to allow for expansion.

Most shipping container homes have a fairly universal design with lots of windows and sliding doors – which is also why many nature lovers may be drawn to these alternative homes. Their sleek look paired with innovative interiors give shipping container homes a playful whimsy and leave many interested in learning more. 

Interest In Off-The-Grid Living

Sustainability and eco-friendly living have boomed as homeowners have sought ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Shipping container homes are an attractive option for those with a green thumb due to their resourcefulness. Unlike a standard home build, container homes use a preexisting resource and can eliminate the need for other raw materials.  

Additionally, due to the affordability of shipping container homes, you may be able to invest your money elsewhere – like in eco-friendly features such as solar panels, a composter or a rainwater tank.

Entrepreneurs Flocking To The Marketplace

The increased popularity of shipping container living has created a new market for used containers and prefabricated units with customizable finishes and features. Interior designers and architects have innovated ways to make shipping containers not only recyclable, but fashionable, which only continues to attract more interest.

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Who Are Shipping Container Houses For?

While there is increased interest in shipping container homes, they’re coined “alternative living” for a reason – these modular homes are not for everyone. If you have a big family, forfeiting any space could seem like a nightmare. Let’s take a look at who shipping container houses work best for and why.

Investors

If you’re looking to test the waters of investing in real estate, creating a shipping container accessory dwelling unit can be a great place to start. It gives you the added space necessary for rentals while still allowing you to live in a traditional home. 

Homeowners

Shipping container homes are extremely affordable, making them an attractive starter home for first-time home buyers, especially when compared with a standard home. On the other hand, if you’re an empty nester and are looking for opportunity in downsizing, then a container home could be the perfect fit for you too.

Those In Need Of Temporary Housing

Many have pointed out that shipping containers can be repurposed for humanitarian purposes – whether it be reforming homeless shelters or housing those affected by disaster, the possibilities are abundant.

Already, some have started using these homes to help others: the Hilda L. Solis Care First Village in downtown Los Angeles recently constructed a 64,000-square-foot facility for homeless LA residents. Made up of recycled shipping containers and wood-framed prefab units, the facility offers 232 housing units which have already been filled.

The dialogue surrounding how to use container homes can be controversial, with many pointing out that high-end or luxe container homes may not produce as much in green return as one may think. If you’re interested in the shipping container home lifestyle, be sure to do your research and know what resources you’ll be using or who you’re buying from to ensure that your new home is ethically produced.

Shipping Container Sizes

A standard shipping container is just 160 or 320 square feet, earning shipping container homes the moniker of “tiny home.” A 160-square-foot shipping container is 20 by 8 feet and a 320-square-foot container is 40 by 8 feet – both standing at 8.5 feet tall. Sizes can vary based on where you get your shipping container, but these two are most standard, with High Cube containers offering about a foot more in height.

Shipping Container Costs

Your costs can vary wildly depending on whether you plan to DIY or purchase a prefabricated unit, and customizable features and finishes can also influence your price. 

For DIYers

The cost of the shipping container itself typically ranges from about $2,000 – $6,000 depending on the size and quality and whether the container is new or used. However, this is the average cost of a bare-bones, empty container that doesn’t factor in insulation, transportation of the unit, or interior finishes. But for those who are looking for a new project or are interested in being cost-effective, a DIY shipping container home will certainly do the trick. 

For Prefabricated Units

Buying a prefab unit will cost you thousands more than the empty container. Prices for prefabricated units can even rival that of a brick-and-mortar home depending on how expensive your tastes are.

You’ll also have to consider where you want to place your home and ensure that the land is a well-suited foundation or else pay for excavation services. However, regardless of how many baubles or customizations you want, you are likely to save big when compared with a standard home. Prebuilt shipping container homes can be priced as low as $33,000 for a basic unit, increasing in price for extra comfort.

Pros Of Building Or Buying A Shipping Container Home

The benefits of converting to a shipping container home all depend on what’s important to you and your lifestyle. Let’s look at some of the pros of shipping container homes to see if these unique residences align with your needs.

Potentially Lower Housing Cost

Homebuilding costs are more predictable and often less expensive since you can cut down on labor and materials.

Durability Of Shipping Containers

Shipping containers are durable, made to withstand the elements during transportation, handling and storage.

Shorter Order-To-Delivery Time Frame Than Other Housing Types

Their prefab style can make for a shorter construction timeline than other housing types with the simplest of designs ready in a few weeks or maybe even days. Their easy mobility can also accelerate the process even more. 

Eco And Sustainability Considerations

Shipping containers are recycled structures in and of themselves and the potential for energy savings can help you do your part to heal the earth. The container home lifestyle has also helped many be more mindful about bulk purchases and overconsumption, further contributing to a healthy, sustainable home.

Cons Of Building Or Buying A Shipping Container Home

While container homes can seem like fun to some, for others this home might not make sense. Here are some of the less-glamorous realities of living in a shipping container home: 

Legal Issues

Although alternative housing has boomed in popularity, it hasn’t been around very long. While some states in the U.S. and a handful of countries abroad already have regulations when it comes to shipping container homes, you will most likely have to do the heavy lifting when it comes to learning about your local government’s zoning regulations and necessary permits regarding this nontraditional housing style.

Difficult To Finance

It can be difficult to find a mortgage on shipping container homes and typically, lenders don’t offer mortgaging options for mobile homes unless they are set on a permanent foundation. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll have to pursue a personal loan for financing. Another potential headache lies in appraisal problems, as they can be hard to conduct without comparables.

Difficult To Insulate

If you want your container home to be energy-efficient, then having good insulation is important. The issue however, is that the thinness of shipping containers can make it challenging to properly insulate the home. For bigger home builds, there’s more available space for insulation, but single-unit or simple stacked structures may have to sacrifice some square footage for this necessary step. 

Difficult To Eliminate Toxins

While it’s generally appealing that shipping containers are built to protect what’s inside, this characteristic can be a problem as well. Many shipping containers are built to prevent pest infestations or corrosion during transport and can contain toxins, including lead.

Shipping Container Homes FAQs

Are shipping container houses mobile?

Despite being designed for mobility, most prefab units are mounted on a foundation – and to qualify for a loan or obtain permits in your area, you may also be limited to a permanent foundation. For the enthusiastic nomad, however, you can research areas that allow for mobile homes and DIYers can prioritize mobility in their container design and build.

Where can I place my shipping container home?

This all depends on your local government and the zoning laws specific to your area. We suggest getting in touch with your city hall and requesting information on mobile homes and alternative housing regulations.

Are shipping container homes a fad?

It’s very possible that shipping container homes will become a staple in real estate. Not only are many prospective homebuyers seeking out affordable options, but alternative living and eco-friendly homes are on the rise as cultural values continue to shift. Interest in van life, tiny homes and other alternative lifestyles point to a growing demand for this adventurous lifestyle. 

Popular Shipping Container Home Designs And Plans

Single Container

One of the most popular floor plans is the single container design, which is a small one-story rectangular home, oftentimes with a deck or patio atop the roof. With such a long, narrow shape, the classic interior layout is much like that of a shotgun house, with rooms lined up one after the other and no hallways between them. Of course, since these small structures are easy to move, stack and add to, the floor plans can vary slightly.

Wood paneled shipping container house with railing on roof.

Stacked

Stacked shipping container homes offer a two-story layout which adds a bit more space, but will still stay true to that cascading floor plan.

Two story stacked shipping container house with window walls.

Side–By–Side

The side-by-side container home, which simply places units next to each other, can allow for more space and separation throughout the home.

Gray shipping container house with modules placed side by side.

Crisscross Stack

The crisscross stack layout, which stacks units perpendicular to the other in an “X,” “T,” or “L” shape, not only adds space but makes for more unique interiors. This floor plan can also give the homeowner a balcony or covered patio area.

Slate colored shipping container homes stacked perpendicularly.

The Bottom Line: Shipping Container Homes Are Yet Another Choice For Those Seeking Alternative Housing

Shipping container homes are a great option for people who wish to live in a unique home, want to build a home with the environment in mind or are interested in dipping their toes in real estate investment. But before you decide to purchase or build a shipping container home, consider your budget and your housing goals to make sure it’s the right choice for you and your family. Also be sure to check out other alternative housing options to make a well-informed decision that suits your lifestyle.

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Lauren Nowacki

Lauren Nowacki is a staff writer specializing in personal finance, homeownership and the mortgage industry. She has a B.A. in Communications and has worked as a writer and editor for various publications in Philadelphia, Chicago and Metro Detroit.