Are Shipping Container Homes Legal In California In 2021?

As homebuyers continue to embrace the trends of minimalist living and reduced environmental impact, shipping container homes have become an increasingly popular option for thousands of builders. Not only are shipping containers affordable, durable and easy to transform into unique living spaces, but they also offer flexibility that traditional dwellings often can’t.

However, many of the laws that regulate residential construction and code enforcement are still catching up to the explosive growth of container homes, which can make the building and permitting process somewhat complicated for aspiring homeowners. The state of California in particular can be a maze of overlapping building codes, zoning laws and other bureaucratic red tape, so we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to obtaining the necessary approvals to build a container home in the Golden State. Without further ado, here is Are Shipping Container Homes Legal In California?

Does California Permit Container Homes?

Container homes are legal within the state of California, provided the modified cargo units meet all existing local, state and federal building and zoning regulations that apply to the home’s location. Land use laws tend to be stricter along the southern coast, while inland areas and the north coast may offer more liberal interpretations of zoning laws.

As you plan your construction timeline and budget, be sure to check with local and state agencies to give you a complete understanding of the processes and costs involved in acquiring the land and meeting all legal requirements.

Zoning Laws in California

Before submitting your site plan to the appropriate authorities, you’ll want to do your homework on the zoning codes in the area as you determine the type of container home you wish to build. The most common residential zoning codes include:

  • R-1: Also known as a single-unit residential zoning district, this land use refers to a single-family dwellings located on its own lot.
  • R-2: The two-unit residential zoning district allows for two residential units, or duplexes, on a single lot.
  • RM: Within a multiple residential zoning district, multiple-unit dwellings (either attached or detached) are permitted on a lot.

California Building Codes and Permits

In California and elsewhere, state building codes exist to ensure the safety and structural integrity of all new and existing construction, including shipping container homes. The California Building Standards Commission is charged with establishing and administering all processes related to the adoption, approval, publication and implementation of California’s building codes, which provide the standards for the design and construction of buildings in California.

California’s building codes are based on the International Code Council’s (ICC) family of 15 coordinated, modern building safety codes that have been developed by the independent agency to help ensure the engineering of safe, sustainable, affordable and resilient structures. The codes are established with the input of public safety officials and are updated every three years to reflect the constantly-evolving environment of residential and commercial construction. These codes include the International Building Code, International Mechanical Code, International Plumbing Code and International Residential Code.

In addition to the codes developed by the ICC, California’s codes are shaped by the National Electric Code and other safety standards established by the National Fire Protection Association.

Building permits are typically issued by municipal planning departments to ensure that the planned structure adheres to the local building code and is structurally sound and safe for occupancy. To obtain a building permit, most local entities require builders to submit plans for review and approval prior to the start of construction, and the finished structure must be inspected before it can be legally occupied or otherwise used.  

Zoning permits, on the other hand, confirm that a planned development conforms to the land use standards for the site before construction begins. They are usually issued simultaneously with building permits, although the specific process may vary from city to city.

To identify the codes that apply to your area and find out which permits you’ll need to obtain before building your container home, search the Construct Connect online tool, which will provide you with the information you’ll need to develop a building plan that will meet all applicable standards.

Regulating Bodies in California

Depending on where you live, you may have to go through multiple regulating agencies to acquire the necessary permits and permissions to build your shipping container home. In California, there are generally four layers of approval home builders will need to obtain to legally construct a residence.

Local/Municipal Government

This body at the town or city level typically issues building and zoning permits and may require an occupancy inspection before you can move into your new shipping container home. Local governments may also be involved in determining land values and taxing districts.

County Government

In some places, local and county governments are consolidated into one governing body, but if this isn’t the case in your area—or if you live outside the borders of an incorporated town or city—you will likely need to seek permits and approvals from the county.

State Government

State governments are generally responsible for establishing the building codes followed by local and county governments, as is the case in California, where the California Building Standards Commission is responsible for this aspect of construction. In addition to building, zoning, mechanical, electrical and plumbing codes, the state may also establish safety codes for earthquakes, fires and other potential hazards.

Federal Government

The federal government plays a minimal, if any, role in regulating shipping container homes. Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal government issues permits on manufactured homes, which are highly mobile and are frequently moved across state borders.  

Commonly-Regulated Container Home Components

As you prepare your construction plan for your shipping container home, keep in mind that regulating agencies will scrutinize your design to ensure that it meets established standards in the following areas:

  • Accessibility: Structures of all types are evaluated to ensure that people of all physical ability levels have access to the building according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Base: Concrete foundations provide a stable base on which to construct your container home.
  • Environmental impact: Building materials should not pose health hazards to inhabitants or neighboring residents or adversely impact the environment.
  • Egress: Building codes require multiple openings for ventilation and escape in case of a fire or other disaster; these include windows, doors and fire escapes.
  • Hazard protection: New construction is usually required to meet a minimum rating for fire protection and smoke inhalation.
  • Materials: Government agencies may have specific rules for the exterior appearance of a residence (style, colors, shape, etc.) as well as insulation and other materials used on the interior construction of the home.
  • Modifications: Inspectors will check to ensure that the home’s engineering, electrical wiring, plumbing and other modifications meet safety standards.
  • Site offsets: Most zoning codes include minimum offsets (the distance between neighboring residences as well as the distance from the residence to the property line).
  • Size: Individual rooms are usually required to meet a minimum square footage and ceiling height.
  • Structural integrity: Perhaps most importantly, your shipping container home needs to be constructed so that the walls, ceiling and other structural components can withstand the forces of gravity, weather and other physical stresses.

Deed Restrictions and Homeowners’ Association (HOA) Regulations

In addition to complying with rules and requirements set forth by government agencies, you may be subject to deed restrictions and homeowners’ association regulations based on where you choose to locate your shipping container home.

Deed restrictions, which may also be referred to as restrictive covenants, are specific stipulations spelled out in the deed for a property. They are frequently established by the original developer of a parcel or group of parcels in an attempt to maintain a uniform appearance in the neighborhood and protect property values.

Because these restrictions are incorporated permanently into the property deed, you will likely need to seek relief from the courts if you wish to deviate from them. Deed restrictions may apply to considerations for how a property can be used or what types of architectural changes can be made to a residence.

Homeowners’ association (HOA) rules, on the other hand, are established and maintained by an elected board of residents in a neighborhood or subdivision. They can be changed without a court or government order, but doing so generally requires a majority of board members to agree to the modification. HOA rules often regulate the appearance of residences and properties, setting restrictions on factors such as paint colors, landscaping and even political signs.

Before investing significant time and financial resources into your container home construction plan, be sure to review any deed restrictions and HOA requirements for any property you’re considering for your project. If you anticipate conflict with existing restrictions, you may wish to consider another property or seek the counsel of a real estate attorney.

Are Shipping Container Homes Legal in California? Our Final Thoughts

As shipping container homes become more commonplace in California and throughout the country, the permitting and construction processes will likely become smoother and less burdensome for builders and buyers. The resources above provide a solid foundation for drafting a plan that meets all local and state requirements in California, but with guidelines and laws constantly changing, you should always check with all relevant agencies to ensure you have the most up-to-date information.

You may have to jump through a few more hoops with a shipping container home than you would with more traditional construction, but for a growing number of Californians, the extra effort is well worth the benefits of owning one of these unique dwellings.