Pros and Cons of Shipping Container Homes

As more and more people embrace minimalist and environmentally-conscious lifestyles—whether through “tiny homes,” KonMari organization or other attempts to simplify daily life—shipping containers are becoming an increasingly popular option for affordable, energy-efficient residences. And while container homes boast distinct advantages over other types of housing units, they aren’t ideal for everyone. Below, we’ll dive into some of the pros and cons of shipping container homes to help you decide whether one of these quirky dwellings is right for you.

Pros of Shipping Container Homes

Price

On average, shipping container homes can be built for significantly less money than comparable traditional-construction homes, especially if you do some or all of the work yourself. However, you will need to account for a number of variables when calculating the cost of a container home, including:

  • Container: This is the most obvious expense and can vary based on size and condition. Large 40-foot shipping containers average between $2,000 and $4,000 for a used container and about $6,000 for a new one. Depending on the size of the home you desire, you may need to purchase multiple containers.
  • Land and site preparation: You’ll need a plot of land to locate your new home, as well as some money for site preparation ahead of construction and placement. Both costs vary wildly in different regions, states and even within municipalities.
  • Foundation: You can’t just plop your container down anywhere and expect it to hold up over time—like a traditional home, you’ll need a foundation, whether it’s pier-style (the cheapest option at $500 to $1,000), trench (around $5,000) or slab (about $6,000).
  • Insulation: Without insulation, your container home will quickly become an oven in the summer months and a fridge in winter. Budget about $2 per square foot for spray foam insulation, $1.20 per square foot for panel insulation and around $.50 per square foot for blanket insulation.
  • Heating and Cooling: Central heating and air will run you at least $5,000. Depending on what region of the country you live in, a good HVAC system may be non-negotiable.
  • Plumbing: Even the most basic container home will still need a kitchen sink, toilet and bathing facilities, which will cost you at least $5,000.
  • Electrical: Unless you plan to live completely off the grid, you’ll need electricity for lights and basic appliances. Hiring an electrician to properly install your wiring is worth the cost, which averages around $7,000.
  • Other costs: These costs are dependent on how fancy you want your new digs to be and may include flooring, doors and windows, hardware, finishes and painting.

If you prefer to let someone else worry about the details, a number of builders offer fully finished basic container homes starting as low as $20,000, with larger and more luxuriously-appointed units costing significantly more.

Distinctive Design

Shipping container homes have a boxy, modern look that’s unlike anything you’ll find with traditional home construction, and for many container home aficionados, the industrial aesthetic is part of the appeal. In fact, many container homes are decorated specifically to emphasize this unique style, using exposed metal, glass and matte colors to embellish the industrial vibe.

While container homes can be finished with materials like brick or wood, if your goal is to completely conceal the fact that the dwelling is made from a massive steel box, going with a more traditional construction style will save you substantial time, money and effort.

Short Construction Time

Depending on the size and complexity of your plans, shipping container homes can be constructed in as little as four weeks, although 10 to 12 weeks is closer to average. In large part, this speed is due to the fact that the bulk of the structure already exists in the form of the container itself; beyond that, you or your contractor is essentially just making modifications to the existing structure.

Compare that building time to traditional new-construction homes, which can take six months to a year from foundation to finish. That’s a long time to wait for your new home!

Reduced Environmental Impact

Compared to traditional construction, shipping container homes have a small environmental footprint, thanks to their heavy reliance on reusing existing materials and reducing space and energy demands.

At this very moment, there are millions of large steel shipping containers sitting idle at ports and on industrial sites around the world. When you select one or several of them to build your home, you’re reducing the amount of space required to store them and reusing thousands of pounds of steel that has already been manufactured. You’re also reducing the amount of timber, masonry, vinyl and other new materials you’d ordinarily use to build a home.

While industrial steel can technically be recycled, the process is prohibitively expensive and consumes a huge amount of energy, making reuse a far better option than recycling.

Off-Site Construction

Shipping container homes can be built virtually anywhere, so you can order a pre-finished home and place it on the lot of your choosing or complete the build at an off-site workshop. This option can be especially convenient if you’re hoping to live off-grid or simply someplace remote that would require you to find an external source of electricity for construction. You’ll also avoid annoying your soon-to-be neighbors with weeks of construction noise and debris.

Cons of Shipping Container Homes

Zoning and Permitting Challenges

As with any home construction, you will need to ensure that your shipping container home meets zoning requirements in your area, and you’ll need to secure the proper permits for building and occupying it. That said, because container homes are still a relatively unfamiliar type of dwelling in many places, you may encounter resistance or even rejection from your local government agency when it comes to obtaining the necessary approvals.

Before you begin construction, do your research. Know exactly what your local zoning codes allow, and make sure your container home falls squarely within those guidelines. If yours will be the first container home in your area, you may need to educate your city council or county commission about the benefits of this type of construction to help alleviate any misgivings they may have. You’ll also have to make sure the external finish of your home conforms to code.

When it comes to placement of your home, know that many neighborhoods have relatively strict homeowners’ association rules that probably don’t welcome container homes. Mobile home parks and undeveloped lots are your best bet to avoid provoking outrage among your future neighbors. As an added benefit, a mobile home park will likely include existing access to utilities.

Environmental Limitations

While shipping container homes are structurally sound, they don’t fare well in all climates and environments. For example, the salty, humid air in coastal regions can wreak havoc on the steel bodies of shipping containers, causing the metal to corrode more quickly than it would in a dry, temperate area. Though the Cor-Ten coating applied to most shipping containers does help to reduce the corrosive effects of environment, it doesn’t render the steel completely rust-proof. If you do live within 10 miles of the ocean, you may want to consider using a secondary corrosion-prevention coating and immediately seal, paint and rust-proof any dents or blemishes in the container’s exterior.

Like mobile and manufactured homes, shipping container homes may not fare well in extreme weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes, so if you live in an area prone to powerful storms, a container home might not be the wisest dwelling choice. If you do choose a container home, always follow the evacuation recommendations of state and local emergency management personnel.

Difficulty Finding Experienced Contractors

Whether you’re planning to build your container home yourself or enlist outside help, you may have limited options when searching for contractors and laborers with experience specific to this type of construction. While some trades are relatively universal, if you can find professionals who have previously worked on container homes, they’ll be better prepared to handle the unique challenges and demands of these dwellings.

If there happen to be other container homes in your area, you’re in luck: simply contact the residents to ask for recommendations (or warnings) about local contractors. If not, you may have to interview a few firms to find a good fit. Contractors who ask questions and seem sincerely interested in this type of construction are likely to be solid partners; avoid contractors who seem dismissive or uninterested in learning about the unique concerns of container homes.

If you lack any building experience and can’t seem to find a contractor or other professionals you feel comfortable hiring to do the work, your best bet is to look into companies that sell pre-finished or custom-built container homes and offer installation support.

Limited Room for Modifications

If your dream home is an infinitely-customizable, specifically-shaped, complex structure, a shipping container home is not for you. While you can make some modest changes to the steel “skin” of your container, cutting too many holes in the walls for windows, doors and other modifications can compromise the structural integrity of the container and require you to install additional load-bearing features. This not only increases the cost of construction, but also increases the environmental burden of your container home: you’ll have to buy additional structural steel, hire an engineer to determine load-bearing requirements and spend time and money making the cuts in the existing steel.

Shipping container homes are best suited to people who don’t care about complicated architectural elements or fancy finishes and are happy with a simple design and modestly-sized rooms.

Limited Local Access to Containers

Unless you live near a major port, you may have to put in some effort to locate and procure the shipping containers you need to build your home. Getting the containers from their current location to your future home site can add cost to your project and negate the environmental savings you achieve by repurposing the container into a residence, especially if that container is across the country or halfway around the world. This consideration shouldn’t discourage you from pursuing your container home dream, but just be sure to factor it into your cost-benefit analysis when planning your build.

Final Thoughts on the Pros and Cons of Shipping Container Homes

With the affordable-housing crisis reaching a breaking point in many U.S. cities, the prevalence of shipping container homes is likely to spike in the years ahead. Shipping container homes provide an eco-friendly, cost-effective alternative to traditional construction, and they can be customized to meet the needs of both minimalist and luxury lifestyles. However, building or buying a container home brings challenges as well as benefits, and it’s critical to examine both when deciding whether this style of residence is right for you.