Shipping Container Zoning Laws: Know Before You Build

What are shipping container zoning laws and why do we need to pay attention to them? The answer lies in the very idea that we can not offer you a single response to this question. Zoning laws are not only drastically different depending on your location, but also changing with a rapid degree of regularity, often being updated more than once each year.

Add in the fact that you have federal, state, county, city, and even community standards to consider, it would be foolish to attempt a single “covers all” answer. This very idea that the entire undertaking is complicated and meticulous is the reason why you need to carefully consider all the shipping container zoning laws in your area before you begin your build process.

We can discuss the general process and suggest some of the questions you need to ask, concerns you need to address, and considerations you may not have thought of. It will be up to you to determine the local jurisdictions that pertain to your property and the zoning laws they will enforce.

The use of converted shipping containers is a novel concept that has been catching on with more and more builders lately and while many of us have seen this movement growing for some time now, the rules and regulations committees are only now beginning to take notice and pass laws and regulations on container homes. While there is a multitude of successful shipping container home builds, the shipping container zoning laws are only now beginning to take shape.

When you approach the local jurisdiction and apply for your building permit, they may or may not be familiar with the conversion of shipping containers into homes, though as we gain popularity more and more agencies are becoming aware. You should speak plainly and clearly explain your build concept to anyone unfamiliar with the concept as introducing a new variable into an already taxing situation will only cause more trouble and headaches down the road.

Being as open and direct as possible about your proposed size, use, and occupation will not only help your local agency in procuring the correct permits, but it may make things more clear for the next builder looking to incorporate shipping containers into their builds.

Your interaction with these local municipalities may indirectly foster future regulations when it comes to shipping container homes in your area. Shipping container zoning laws are being formed and revised constantly and with an increasing interest in this kind of construction, your example may be the first on a long list of “how-to” permit and regulation rulings when it comes time for changes in the laws later on.

Once you obtain an approved permit and get the build complete, it is common for existing buildings to be “grandfathered” in on any changes in the laws, but one thing is perfectly clear; do not think you will build your shipping container home without clearing the permit process, or you may find yourself in one expensive situation. Fines accrue over time, and in some cases, complete demolition has been ordered.

Shipping Container Zoning Laws: Considerations

Get a full understanding of the shipping container zoning laws in your jurisdictions before you begin your build.

Building Permit Application

Shipping container zoning laws are still being developed, but those laws currently on the books are clear and precise, as are all building codes, as each word is examined and legally defined. Definitions are the oil that lubricates the building permit and zoning codes machine.

You can have one thing, but not the other, so it is important to make absolutely certain that every word in the proposal you submit to the zoning laws and building permit authorities is clear, precise, and most importantly, correct. If you lapse into slang words and misidentify any element of your proposed build, the local authority may delay your plans, or possibly even deny them and call for a re-submittal; complete with new fees as well.

Property zoning is one of the hurdles you’ll encounter. Some unaware clerks may classify your shipping container as a commercial or industrial building and not allow it in a residential zone. This is a fairly standard consideration for someone who has not encountered converter shipping containers as homes yet. Zoning laws are there to make sure cities and municipalities are organized and safe.

This is why you have industrial areas, commercial areas, and residential areas, all kept separate from one another. You’ll see mixed usage with light commercial and residential, but you do not want the local hazmat factory setting up shop right next to your home. Zoning laws are there to make certain this doesn’t happen. Proper enforcement of the zoning laws is why you don’t see gun stores opening up right next door to an elementary school.

When you encounter a clerk unfamiliar with shipping container zoning laws it may be up to you to properly explain how and why your proposed build won’t be classified as an industrial structure. If you simply express your intention to drop a few cargo containers on a lot and call it home, your plan will be rejected as a residential build.

Your building permit application should address the planned modifications from the structural design all the way to the external facade and landscaping you propose so any clerk looking at your plans will indeed see that your “cargo containers” will indeed become a home and suitable for residential zoning.

Snags that could trip up your application process include the definition of the shipping container itself. There are very specific codes that apply to manufactured housing, modular housing, mobile housing, and temporary structures. Until the shipping container zoning laws are codified and universal, any jurisdiction unfamiliar with your proposal may incorrectly stamp your building as an improper and therefore un-allowed construction.

There are available “tiny houses” on the market which as 20’ shipping containers on a trailer. These kinds of homes should be, and will be, zoned and regulated differently than your permanent multiple shipping container conversion and residential structure. The same can be said for the installation of using a shipping container as a backyard storage shed or workshop. Your dwelling has the intent of occupation and therefore, after all your modification plans are completed and built, your shipping container home should be regulated and zoned the same as any “ordinary” home build.

Larger Jurisdictions

Some of the shipping container zoning laws will be universal across the board on a larger scale. When you consider building permits and the construction process nationwide, there are broad categories that apply to all structures, shipping container homes included. Your search for specific shipping container zoning laws will fall under federal and state guidelines in most of these situations.

Your local jurisdictions will have specific details that apply to your region and can supersede the lower standard levels of state or federal laws. These are to be considered minimal levels of building standards. You can not use the national codes to justify your build’s failure at the state level, in fact, it is the other way around. States can (and do) enforce higher standards than the national codes due to regional needs.

You will most likely have electricity in your converted shipping container home. Shipping container zoning laws often require this in order to classify your construction as a permanently occupied structure. Many outbuildings fall into this loophole. A shed can be considered portable or temporary until you rig up a light inside, then it becomes a permanent structure and falls under a new classification of rules.

The National Electric Code is a great place to start when preparing your design to pass any shipping container zoning laws. Electrical power is considered an essential utility and is carefully regulated in how it is installed for safety reasons. An improperly installed electrical system can cause electrical shocks and fires.

Another essential utility is plumbing, again with its own national code system. Water under pressure can flow at your taps, wastewater flows downhill. A leak in either of these lines can cause water damage, flooding, or unsanitary conditions. Depending on how remote your home’s new site is, you may be hooking into the local sewer system, a septic tank, or maybe even a greywater leeching pond.

These discharge options will most likely be covered under your local municipality’s regulations, but the piping and drainage systems you install should meet the national standards at a minimum. This will give you the best possible effort at clearing any shipping container zoning laws.

State regulations step up the standards from the federal levels as they can be more specific according to the local needs. For instance, the state of Florida will require walls and roofs to be reinforced to meet expected hurricane winds. Florida’s zoning laws requiring these reinforcements are more stringent than those in states that do not regularly experience winds of such force.

The state of California has seen a boom in the shipping container conversion market and has already begun to address shipping container zoning laws. These new zoning laws are specific to structures built from converted shipping containers after careful consideration in how these buildings are being used.

Shipping container homes in California are required to be brand new or “single-use” containers so the previous contents of the container are known to the state, builder, and eventual resident. However, older state codes still apply to these new shipping container zoning laws. Seismic anchoring must be addressed in how the shipping container it tied to the ground; a zoning law not considered in states where earthquakes are uncommon.

Local Jurisdictions

The majority of your dealings with governmental agencies when you begin navigating shipping container zoning laws will be smaller and much more detailed than you will find in the national or state codes.

Your local jurisdictions will have shipping container zoning laws that are much more specific to your construction site and depending on how specific the region is, could vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, even crossing one single street can change the regulations you will be held to so working with the local authorities to ensure you are in compliance with all possible shipping container zoning laws on your particular build site.

County and city codes are not completely synonymous as some areas are unincorporated and fall only within county guidelines. Very often counties and large cities will work to keep their zoning laws similar, especially in large cities that occupy the entirety of the county.

However, other large cities have multiple counties running through their area as they expanded across county lines, so if you move where you build your shipping container home, or if you plan to build a second shipping container home, remember that you can be within the same city but in two different counties, possibly with two different shipping container zoning laws.

The foundation of your shipping container home build will be the first part of your build, but before you turn your first shovelful of dirt, make sure you’ve applied for the proper building permits otherwise you may find yourself wasting time and money. Some builders have filed their building permit applications only to find that even within the same parcel of land it is permissible to build in one area but not in another.

Land usage laws can be specified according to topographical maps and do not consider who owns which line on which map, only what is allowable at which elevation. Percolation tests will be conducted, the lot size will be considered, and any scrutiny you can avoid by being thorough in your application process will help you in the long run.

Finally, once you carefully navigate federal, state, county, municipal, city laws, there may be one more authority you will need to clear before beginning any construction. If you are planning on building your new home in a deed-restricted community or any neighborhood with a Homeowners Association, you need to be sure they clear any of your plans with any considerations that may have on shipping container zoning laws.

This may sound self-explanatory, and with many of the stereotypes about harsh HOA regulations, you may think you’re sunk before you begin. But this is not always a forgone conclusion. Shipping container zoning laws have come a long way and many HOAs that allow new builds to take place are aware of them.

When you submit a proposal that includes your entire plan from conceptual drawings before the ground is prepared all the way to a visualization of the completed home with matching exterior, painted surfaces, landscaping, and all the amenities that turn a shipping container into a livable home, most community boards are more than willing to see the future evolving right before their very eyes as long as your proposed build follows any existing shipping container zoning laws, you should be able to get their approval as well.

Other Concerns to Consider

Designing your shipping container home begins with an idea and expands from there. Your imagination and exposure to other builder’s designs can go a long way toward making your new home build an exceptional example of a conversion home. When looking to meet the local shipping container zoning laws, some of the smaller elements of your build may fall through the cracks as you focus on the larger aspects of the build.

You have to carefully consider the entire build project and not just the placement of these large boxes on a piece of land. Without the fine details that go along with the larger pieces of the puzzle, you won’t have a “home” proposal, all you’ll have is a “cargo container” proposal, and that is unlikely to pass any local regulations. Here are a few more shipping container zoning laws and considerations you need to address in the initial design phase:

  • Since you’re building up a new home, you may think you only need a “building permit” but that could get you in some trouble. Some municipalities require a “demolition permit” to do any modifications to existing intact shipping containers.
  • Your property is not all yours to build upon. Offsets, Easements, and Right-of-Ways exist, even on land you are paying for. Buried utility lines, future widening of roads, irrigation, access to other neighboring properties… any of these can keep you from building so much as a picket fence on certain portions of your property.
  • Fire detection and fire protection. Smoke detectors and heat detectors have become fairly common in homes across the country and there are rules that apply to the installation of these life safety fire detection devices. However, depending on the local shipping container zoning laws, your structure may require a fire protection system such as sprinkler pipes. Know before you build as this can be an expensive thing to learn afterward.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act regulates public structures in regards to accessibility to facilities, ingress and egress, hall and doorway widths being suitable for wheelchairs, and many more things you may not have considered. If you shipping container conversion is a private residence, you may be exempt from the ADA requirements, but if you have any commercial plans, or if your private residence falls within certain jurisdictions, you may need to view these guidelines when meeting shipping container zoning laws.
  • When you look at your property you visualize where you want your new home to sit, but first you have to clear the land. Before you fire up the bulldozer or the chainsaw, consult the shipping container zoning laws and local ordinances applying to landscape and land use. Removal of some native vegetation may not be permitted. Planting invasive species afterward could also be a problem.

Our Final Thoughts

These are only a handful of considerations that should be addressed when consulting the shipping container zoning laws. Building a new home, whether out of timber or shipping container is an intense project. Most new home builders are aware of this and as the DIY spirit moves you to consider shipping container conversion as a project, remain aware of the paperwork that will be required.

Building the new home will be the easy part, making sure you are in compliance with shipping container zoning laws is where all the hard work takes place, but the result will all be worth it when you sit back in the new home you built.