The 8 Most Important Things to Know Before Building a Shipping Container Home

Building a shipping container home

Right now, shipping container homes have never been hotter. With the average price of owning a home in the U.S. sitting around $257,000, and the price of buying a brand new home sitting at $407,000, it’s only natural that people are flocking to a more cost-friendly alternative. Shipping containers, by contrast, may cost as little as $1,400 each, and you might not even need that many to make a beautiful and spacious home.

Despite the benefits of shipping container homes, it can be a challenge to make sure your home is built on-time and on budget. That’s why it’s essential to do a lot of research and preparation before you start making any serious financial decisions. In this article, we’ll review the eight most important things to know before you start the process -- so you can build a stylish and functional shipping container home with confidence.

1. Buy the Correct Containers

Whether you’re building and designing your home from scratch using an original design or an existing plan, you’re likely to be the one responsible for buying your own shipping containers. Because the market is so big, it’s important to research the company you’re working with first. 

Some homebuilders have reported receiving beat-up or damaged containers, so it’s also a good idea to make sure to see the containers (or at least a photo of them) before you buy them. Since you’ll likely be spending thousands of dollars on this part of your home, there’s no reason to leave anything to chance.

 2. It May Be Better to Have Someone Else Design Your Home

If you’ve been designing and dreaming up the perfect shipping container home since you were 10 years old, what we’re saying here might not apply. But, if you’ve just latched onto the shipping container home trend in the last few years, designing your own home may not be worth the additional effort. And, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could make mistakes that compromise the safety and structural integrity of the building. 

If you can afford it, have an architect with experience in this area design your home -- that way, they can anticipate and mitigate any structural issues. Plus, an architect can help customize your home so it fits all of your specific needs and preferences. 

3. Prefab Shipping Container Homes Are Another Great Option

Here’s another tip: you don’t have to build your shipping container home from scratch in order to make it functional and beautiful. Instead, you can order a decent prefabricated home (they’re even available on Amazon) for as little at $15,000. Of course, larger and fancier models will usually sell for more, but there’s a wide variety of options that can fit almost any style or budget.

Getting a prefab shipping container home has several benefits, including:

  • Controlling overall building costs, especially in regards to materials

  • Allowing you to see an example of a finished home before yours is complete

  • Less likelihood of insulation or safety issues

  • Faster planning and construction process

  • Little/no design required

4. Keep Building Regulations and Planning in Mind

While building a shipping container home can be incredibly exciting, you still have to deal with certain realities -- among them, that your home still needs to comply with any local and state building regulations. These differ from state to state, and some states are known to be much more friendly to shipping container homeowners than others. 

For example, Texas, California, Tennessee, Oregon, and Alaska are considered among the best states to build in, since their zoning and land laws are somewhat liberal, at least when it comes to these kinds of homes. No matter where you decide to build, you’ll always want to secure a building permit first -- otherwise, you could land yourself in serious hot water. 

5. Determine How Your Home Will Be Insulated

Believe it or not, insulation is one of the most pressing issues when it comes to building a shipping container home. Of course, the level and type of insulation you’ll need will depend a lot on the climate your home is located in; a shipping container home in Alaska would need a lot more insulation than, say, a home in Florida. In cold, damp, areas, proper insulation might involve using spray foam to create a vapor barrier, while in hotter and drier climates, insulation efforts should focus on keeping your home cool.

Overall, spray foam is one of the most effective insulation materials-- but it can also be messy and expensive, so some builders turn to blanket insulation, which can be somewhat cheaper. If you’re looking for a more eco-friendly form of cold-weather insulation, opt for wool or cotton. For hotter climates, a living roof (a roof with plants on it), or mud insulation might be able to do the trick. 

6. If Possible, Use One Contractor Throughout the Entire Process

In many cases, when you’re building a non-prefab container home, you’ll use two contractors throughout the process; one to pick up and modify the containers, and another to finish the interior of the home. While it may be necessary to do this for logistical purposes, having two contractors may be significantly more expensive than simply dealing with one through the entire construction. Using a single contractor will typically cut down on fees, and may also be able to speed up the process, since there will be no confusion or disconnects between the two stages of the project.

7. You May Have to Attach Your Home to a Permanent Foundation to Get a Mortgage

Unfortunately, getting a home loan or a home construction loan to build a shipping container home is still somewhat tricky. Many lenders will still classify these homes as mobile homes, even if you have no intention of ever moving them from their current location.

To sidestep this, you may want to include in your building design a permanent foundation, which will make it more likely that lenders will consider it a “permanent home.”

8. When It Comes to Shipping Container Homes, It Pays to Do Your Homework

Building a shipping container home can be an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be pitfalls and challenges along the way. To get the most out of your shipping container home construction experience, do your research beforehand. 

Talk to contractors, shipping container companies, and current shipping container homeowners to see what worked for them, and what they would do differently. By doing so, you can go into the construction process with the greatest chance of building the shipping container home of your dreams.