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shipping container house exterior

Shipping Container Homes: A Complete Guide

Lauren Nowacki7-Minute Read
September 28, 2020

For years, shipping containers were used to transport goods across both land and sea. They’re those big steel boxes you may see on semi-trucks or cargo ships. Once out of commission, these structures are abandoned or 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 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. Want to know more about this style of home? Read on to learn more.

What Are Shipping Container Homes?

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

The Anatomy Of A Shipping Container Home

The standard shipping container’s design is pretty universal and built strong to withstand the elements. However, when you start adding windows and doorways, the structure becomes weaker and needs additional supports added.

The floor, roof and sides are all made of corrugated steel. The floor may also have forklift pockets on the exterior.

Most shipping containers have outward-opening, twin doors on the end for loading. Some containers will have sliding doors on the side, but this is less common. There are no windows.

Most shipping containers come in two sizes – 20 feet by 8 feet (160 square feet) or 40 feet by 8 feet (320 square feet) and are usually about 8.5 feet tall. There are containers called High Cubes that offer about a foot more in height. With such a long, narrow rectangular 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. Many have large windows and sliding doors along the sides.

Of course, since these small structures are easy to move, stack and add to, the floor plans can vary slightly. We’ll take a look at a few different shipping container home plans later in this article.

How To Build A Shipping Container Home

If you’re building a shipping container home, you’ll likely need to purchase land as well. It’s important to know what to look for when buying land, especially with such a unique home. The size of land you’ll need will depend on the size of the shipping container (or containers) you use and how you build the structure. If you use more than one container, you can either build up or out.

You’ll need to make sure you can build this type of home on the land, so make sure you understand zoning and local laws. Some states require only specific containers be used for housing and may require documentation showing what has been transported or stored in the container. You’ll need building permits as well.

Luckily, shipping containers are relatively inexpensive, come pre-built and are easy to transport. However, you’ll need to build a foundation before the containers arrive.

Once the containers are installed on the site (typically with a crane) and secured to the foundation, finishing the home will require the following tasks:  

 

  • Cut spaces for and install the windows and doors.
  • Install the plumbing, electricity, insulation and flooring.
  • Add new support systems and framing.
  • Install the drywall.
  • Connect to the utility grid (electrical and water systems).
  • Install the HVAC system.
  • Build each room inside the home.
  • Paint the interior and exterior of the home.
  • Bring in the furniture, light fixtures and appliances.
  • Add the finishing touches for your favorite home decor style.

 

Much of the building and modifications require special skills, like welding, so we recommend hiring professionals in those areas, including an electrician, plumber and welder.

If you wish to forgo all the modifications and installations, some companies are beginning to offer prefab shipping container homes ready to install.

How Much Do Shipping Container Homes Cost?

The cost of the shipping container itself typically ranges from about $2,000 – $6,000. This price depends on the size and quality of the container and whether it’s new or used. This is the average cost of a bare-bones, empty container; prefab containers will cost thousands more.

Along with the size and type of container you purchase, there are several additional needs that will contribute to the total shipping container home cost. These include:

 

  • Land needed for building
  • Number of containers needed
  • Delivery of containers
  • Labor that may include welding, plumbing, electrical and structural engineering
  • Building materials
  • Windows and doors
  • Flooring
  • Insulation
  • Building permits
  • Foundation work
  • Cleaning of used containers
  • Interior and exterior painting

 

All things considered, estimates put the price of a larger shipping container home at about half the price per square foot as a traditional home.

Pros and Cons of Shipping Container Homes

As with any home, shipping container homes have their benefits and drawbacks. Before you start the journey into buying one of these homes, consider the following:

Pros

  • The structure uses recycled materials.
  • Their prefab style means a shorter construction timeline.
  • Homebuilding costs are more predictable and often less expensive since you can cut down on labor and materials.
  • They are easy to transport. That was once their main purpose, after all.
  • They are durable, made to withstand the elements during transportation, handling and storage.
  • They’re trendy and unique alternative homes.

Cons

  • Older used shipping containers can have structural issues and cosmetic damage from years of use.
  • The limited space in the container can grow crowded with necessary housing features, like furniture, appliances, HVAC and plumbing.
  • Steel walls can make it hard to insulate the home.
  • They could contain lead or other toxins.
  • They can be noisy.
  • Their structure may require new reinforcement if installing windows and doors or stacking containers.
  • You may have difficulty finding a home for sale since inventory on these unique homes is much lower.
  • It could be difficult to get a mortgage on the home.
  • When you want to move out of your shipping container home, it may be difficult to sell your house, since it requires a buyer with a certain taste.

Popular Shipping Container Home Designs and Plans

Since each shipping container is a separate piece, you can create a variety of home designs from them. Here are some of the most popular ones to consider.

Single Container

single shipping container with wood accents

The single container design is the smallest and simplest shipping container home design. It’s also likely the least expensive. It consists of just one shipping container and its layout most likely consists of cascading rooms with no halls. It’s a one-story home but can have a loft if space allows.

Stacked

shipping containers stacked on top of one another

Stacked shipping container home designs place one container on top of the other for a multilevel home that provides more space. The home is still long and narrow, so it may still have a cascading floorplan. However, some rooms can be moved to the second level to expand the rooms. Some stacked designs use a shorter or narrower container on top, which provides an area for an outdoor rooftop balcony.   

Side–By–Side

shipping container home side by side with windows

True to its name, the side-by-side design places two or more containers side by side to create a wider home. This allows more room in the floor plan to include hallways, more rooms, bigger spaces and more separation between rooms. For a more unique look, position the two containers offset from one another to add depth and dimension.

Crisscross Stack

crisscrossed stacked shipping container home

The crisscross stack design is created by stacking your shipping containers perpendicular to one another. This can form an “X,” “T” or “L” shape. By crisscrossing the stack, you’ll not only create an even more unique home design, you’ll also create rooftop balcony areas and covered porch areas all in one.

Bottom Line

Shipping container homes are a great option for people who wish to live in a unique home or build a home with the environment in mind. While the containers themselves don’t cost much, additional costs to build the home, including land and building materials, can add up fast. 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.

Visit the Rocket HomesSM blog for more home buying tips, home improvement guides, decorating advice and other resources for successful homeownership.

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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.