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The Ultimate Downsize: Living in a Shipping Container Home

Shipping container home
The Jones-Glotfelty shipping container house in Flagstaff, Arizona. Angel Schatz/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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Whether they stir up childhood memories of the Boxcar Children or look like the coolest answer to today's microhousing movement, shipping container homes combine innovation and durability in one self-contained package. Some of them do, anyway. Others are multilayer constructions that treat the structures like LEGO blocks and culminate in super-luxurious homes.

In any configuration, a shipping container home is just what it sounds like – a dwelling made from a steel container otherwise used for shipping. From the basic to the lavish, the containers offer the benefit of a ready-made shell, but they can lead to confusion over what is necessary and allowable from site to site. In addition to learning more than you probably want to know about local building regulations, you will need to start by selecting a container or containers from which to build your home.

How to Choose a Shipping Container

There are two basic shipping container sizes to choose from – 20 by 8 feet (6 meters by 2.4 feet) and 40 by 8 feet (12 meters by 2.4 feet), which provide 160 and 320 square feet (15 and 30 square meters) of space respectively. Regular containers have a height of 8.5 feet (2.5 meters), but a high cube offers 9.6 feet (3 meters). While it is more expensive, a high cube may be worth the extra cost – adding necessities like insulation and plumbing takes away some height.

Pay special attention to the condition of the container, which may have been anywhere in the world while it was being used for its primary purpose. The Tiny Life blog suggests power washing the inside of your container in case it had been used to transport produce. Accounting for a container's global travels could also mean that it has come in contact with harmful materials, according to designer Ben Uyeda, who built a shipping container home in California. That has led some states, like California, to restrict the types of containers than can be used for dwellings.

How Much Does a Shipping Container House Cost?

"The first consideration is, where do you live," Uyeda explains. In California, all units used for dwellings must be first-run or one-trip containers, and all trips must be documented. Depending on the regulations in your area, you may be able to purchase a cheap, used container on eBay or Craigslist for around $1,000. But you might be better off, or even required, to get one that is new or has made just one documented journey.

Uyeda got his 40-foot high (12-meter high) cubes from ContainerDiscounts.com for less than $5,000 each. There are many container brokers in business, and he suggests finding one that is reputable, willing to deal with individuals and able to ship the container to your site.

While the one-container prefab or DIY homes might carry a small price tag, there is no limit to the upward end of the range. Placing containers side by side and stacking them allows for spacious, high-end homes that are one of a kind – although they might come with cellphone and Wifi issues thanks to the steel frame.

Are Special Permits Needed for a Container Home?

When it comes to obtaining the proper permits to build your container home, know that locations throughout the U.S. and the world have significantly different requirements. In fact, you should find out about local regulations before you even order your container. While the containers are relatively inexpensive, building regulations can add cost to your home, change your plan or make it altogether impossible. Not every location allows for this type of dwelling.

You need to consider zoning laws, building codes, permits, deed restrictions and homeowner association rules, according to the Discover Containers website. These can get specific. For example, in Atlanta, buildings under 750 square feet (70 square meters) are permitted behind a primary residence, but if they have a stove and are intended for long-term tenants, more than 90 days, they are only allowed in certain zoning districts. In any city, container homes must also meet building codes. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "Shipping containers that are converted into housing units are subject to state and local building codes like modular and site-built homes."

Uyeda recommends visiting your local building department and explaining what you want to build so that you will know whether and how to proceed. Although any professional architecture or engineering firm should be able to do the necessary research to sign off, because the structure may be unusual, it could cause you to rack up time at an hourly rate. Approval from the structural engineer ran Uyeda around $8,000, but he estimates the stamp on a traditional home would have been closer to $1,500.

What to Know Before You Build a Container Home

With your shipping container on its way and permits in hand, you are ready to start putting your new home together.

Rather than doing the work yourself, you could buy a completed container home from a builder. These units can start at $35,000 to $40,000 depending on size. If you go the ready-made route, Uyeda cautions to make sure the builder understands the local codes in your area. Find out what is included in the quote – the foundation, hooking up the plumbing and electric, delivery and other aspects.

"Just make sure you are getting accurate, binding quotes that are all inclusive," he says. "There is no nationwide building solution. Be very skeptical of Amazon sellers that sell those. Use common sense."

Next, pay close attention to the delivery and placement of your container. If your home will be located in a remote area, make sure the roads are good enough for a big truck to get through. If your foundation is not ready or you do not get the container placed precisely and have to move it later, you will need to rent a crane.

If you are doing the build-out, you will need to open spaces in the steel for windows and doors, which means welding. Nevertheless, Uyeda says a container home can be a good option for people who want to build their own living space but do not have a lot of construction experience. Instead of having to worry about getting corners straight, you start with the box and can treat it like a remodeling project from there.

"Learning to weld isn't that difficult," he says. In fact, because the exterior walls are already in place, building a container home with just a couple of people is doable. It took his small crew less than 20 weeks to construct a three-container house.

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