Everything You Need to Know About Shipping Container Tiny Homes

Shipping containers are the latest rage in low-cost housing. 

You may think this sounds strange, because well… Who would want to live in a hot metal box?

The answer: more than you think. 

One of the best things about tiny houses is that building and designing one allows you to express your creativity, and using shipping containers to create a home is no different. 

There is a lot of satisfaction in going from a hot metal box to a beautiful home. Additionally, shipping containers have a lot of great things going for them. 

In this article, we will explore some of the pros (and cons) of using shipping containers for a tiny home.

Why Use A Shipping Container To Build Your Tiny Home?

Low-Cost Housing

A shipping container is a very low-cost option for building a tiny house and great for those wanting a DIY project. 

Typically, once a shipping container reaches its destination and is unloaded, it is not worth the companies expense to send it back. 

Many of them have crossed the ocean from China, so they are often just sold.

As a result, depending on the size you want, you can purchase a shipping container for less than $5000. 

A quick internet search netted me these options:

1. eBay had a 20 foot long one for $1500.00 

2. BoxHub had a 40 foot one for $1700.00

If you are handy with building experience, a final finished home can cost as little as $10,000. 

Costs are going to vary a great deal depending on what features you desire. A larger (read fancier) home may be closer to $100,000.

Obviously, you want to find one close to your location as delivery prices can add up quickly. 

Some of the larger companies offer free shipping, which may or may not include placement of the shipping container on your foundation.

Need a Cheap Instant Home?

If you are not up to a do-it-yourself project, don’t fear, because there are many completed shipping container homes on the market.

Here are three great ready-made options:

1. Simple Terra 

  • Two-bedroom option 
  • Two shipping containers together
  • Equal to 600 square feet
  • $27,995.00 and includes free shipping in the continental USA

2. Amazon: 

  • Not to be outdone by anyone, Amazon offers a complete 40-foot tiny homemade shipping container. 
  • $36,000 plus $4500 for shipping depending on your location in the country.

3. Backcountry Containers 

  • Offers a full line of custom tiny homes made from shipping containers 
  • My favorite is their Rustic Retreat Home 
  • Starts at $44,000
  • This is a twenty-foot long home with the roof made into a deck for outdoor living space

DIY or Buy

There are many things to consider when deciding to design and build your home yourself or purchase a completed home. 

This would apply to any type of home, but there are some specific things when considering a shipping container tiny house.

DIY building takes time and knowledge. In addition to basic knowledge of framing, electrical and plumbing installation, the shipping container DIY builder will need experience with metalwork.

Specialized tools that can deal with the thick metal walls, such as a high amperage grinder or plasma cutter, are required. 

Also, having welding equipment and skills will be crucial.

If you don’t have these skills or do not have time to acquire them, buying may be a better option, and it is a great idea to go with an experienced company that is willing to work with you on all stages of the project.

Reasons To Love Shipping Container Homes

They’re Environmentally Friendly

One of the reasons that many people choose to live in tiny homes is because they are environmentally friendly. 

“Recycle, Reuse, Reduce” is a mantra of the environmental movement, and a shipping container home is the perfect example of this.

These shipping containers are often made of recycled steel, which you are then reusing to make into a tiny home. 

You reduce your waste and excess by becoming part of the tiny home movement and embracing a minimalist lifestyle.

They Give You More Time To Do What You Love

If you have been reading our blog and following the tiny house movement, you know that many people have chosen to leave behind the “we want it all” lifestyle to embrace living tiny.

This video shows one couple in New Zealand who left behind a 5 bedroom home complete with a swimming pool and tennis courts. 

They chose instead to invest in an off-grid shipping container home that gives them time to spend with their children and lead the life they want. 

No longer are they caught up in maintaining an expensive home.


Shipping Container Houses Are Durable & Weatherproof

So when that shipping container is sent around the world with valuable goods inside, it is made to keep them safe. 

Shipping containers are made to be exposed to the weather and sea salt, and are made from heavy-duty steel and/or aluminum.

They are waterproof, quite heavy, and fireproof, and many of them even have earthquake and storm-resistant ratings. 

These are all good qualities in a home, to say the least. 

They Are Flexible & Adaptable

Need more room?

Another great plus is that building with shipping containers allows you to stack them or put them side by side. This allows you to easily add on, which is great for growing families.

Need a House Fast?

Shipping containers are great for getting a project off the ground quickly. 

Unlike building a tiny home (or conventional house), the shipping container shell gives you a strong foundation to begin with, so you can easily jump start your project. 

What Are the Challenges of Building a Shipping Container Tiny Home?

Cutting Out Doors and Windows

The first thing to consider with your shipping container floor plans will be the placement of doors and windows. 

Cutting through the heavy steel will help you to appreciate how sturdy your home is. 

It will also be hard work that requires some specialized tools.

You may be wise to choose to work with an engineer who is familiar with their design so that you don’t damage the structural integrity. 

You also want to be cautious with cutting, as it can diminish the safety protections the shipping container is designed for, such as wind resistance.

When you are thinking about window placement, consider placing windows so you create cross ventilation.

Hot, Hot, Hot

Yes, a steel box retains the heat. An obvious solution to this is to add a thick layer of insulation to the ceiling.

Adding solar panels to your roof will help cool the roof as the solar panels absorb the sun’s rays and turn it into productive energy. Some have a deck attached to the roof, which provides cooling plus outdoor living space.

Furthermore, your shipping container design will need to include a good HVAC and ventilation system to prevent your home from being stuffy and to ensure proper airflow.

Questions To Ask Yourself

OK, you are reading this article and are very intrigued by having a container home.

Ask yourself these questions…

1.   Are you ready to downsize your lifestyle and embrace a more minimalist approach to life?

2.   Do you want to have less house “chores” and more time to spend with family, travel, pursue hobbies, etc?

3.   Do you want an affordable home that is mortgage free?

4.   Do you want a home that will stand up to the elements and be safe in a storm or fire?

5.   Do you appreciate tiny house designs that are modern, contemporary and geometric?

6.   Are you an ardent environmentalist who wants to practice what they preach by living in an earth-friendly home?

If you read these questions and thought – “Yes! That’s me!” then you are a good candidate for a shipping container tiny home.

Are you ready? Keep reading.

Steps To Converting a Shipping Container Into a Tiny Home

1. Draw up some floor plans for your tiny house. 

Shipping container floor plans will be either 8 x 10, 8 x 20, or 8 x 40, because these are the common sizes they are built-in.

Remember, you can stack them like legos or lay them side by side if you need a bigger space. 

I even saw one that had the shipping container upright like an elevator shaft. 

It is important to note that shipping containers are not suited to being a THOW (tiny house on wheels) because of their weight.

Typically, shipping containers are 8 feet tall. 

However, you can purchase high-cubed containers, which are a foot taller and give you more wiggle room for insulation and utilities.

Like other styles of tiny homes, your design will need to include lots of storage areas. When designing a tiny house, it is important to think multifunction. 

In a tiny house, you don’t have separate rooms so much as separate areas.

2. Prepare your land and foundation. 

Shipping containers are heavy, so you will need a firm driveway to bring it in and have a foundation ready. 

Sturdy foundations, such as a concrete slab or concrete piers, are most common for a shipping container home.

3. Purchase your container.

Plan on going to look at containers in person, that way you can examine the container for dents, rust, and other physical damage. 

You also will want to enter the container to make sure it does not have any strong odors. Other things to keep in mind include:

  • Know the size, type, and condition you want
  • Have a budget in mind
  • Search away online but do a pre-purchase inspection
  • Search Google by entering “shipping container” and then your nearest city

4. Arrange For Shipping

Shipping can be difficult and costly, but free shipping may be available from some suppliers. If you buy your container from a large company, such as BoxHub, they will have the necessary equipment, such as tilt-bed trailers, heavy forklifts, and even a crane if you are stacking them.

In addition to shipping, ask about placement. 

Do they just dump off the container? Meaning you will have to hire a crane to place it on your foundation. 

Or will the shipping company place the container(s) where you want them on a prepared foundation?

5. Flooring may need to be replaced or a permanent floor may need to be added

Some shipping containers have poorly made floors or ones that contain high amounts of chemical residue. 

Also, some local regulations may vary based on what your shipping container carried. For instance, if the shipping container carried toxic materials, then it could not be purchased for a home.

Your first actual building task should be to replace the floor and add a layer of insulation, subfloor, and flooring of your choice.

6. Your next step will be to continue the insulation for your tiny home

Your shipping container takes well to using insulated foam, which also has a high R-Value. 

You may also choose to frame it in and place insulation batts in between the studs. After this is completed, then you can add interior walls.

7. Adding electric and plumbing will depend on what type of systems you plan to install.

Depending on your system, you may do this before you insulate. 

Since your shipping container is on a permanent foundation, you will most likely qualify for your local utilities.

You may decide to go with conventional electric and plumbing.  If this is the case, you will need to look into any building codes or local ordinances about using these utilities.

The Modern Home Project has recently uploaded a great series on building a shipping container home. 

The first episode is on getting permits and dealing with local regulations, as well as how to build a good foundation.

This particular home is 700 square feet, which is larger than the typical tiny home. This was due to building codes in California requiring that occupied homes be at least 700 square feet.

Check it out

Ame Vanorio

Ame Vanorio

Ame Vanorio lives a sustainable, off-grid life in Falmouth, Kentucky where she is the director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center. Ame has 25+ years of experience and teaches classes in green building, organic gardening, Native American spirituality and wildlife conservation. She is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and lives with a myriad of domestic and wild animals.
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