Whether stacked on cargo ships, rolling across the country on trains or attached to the back of large trucks, shipping containers play a key role in the global economy. Without them, it would be virtually impossible to efficiently transport manufactured goods across oceans, onto store shelves and ultimately into consumers’ homes.
But over the last several decades, shipping containers have found new life in the form of container homes, which have become popularized by minimalist trends in residential architecture. Shipping container homes range from basic dwellings made from a single container to complex modular structures comprised of multiple containers along with other industrial components.
But where to buy shipping containers is the real question. If you’re considering building a container home, finding and purchasing a shipping container in house-worthy condition may be your biggest challenge. Below, we’ll guide you through the buying process and help you avoid the most common mistakes in shipping container procurement.
What is a Shipping Container Home?
A wide variety of dwellings fit into the category of shipping container homes. Shipping containers generally come in one of two sizes: 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet, yielding 160 and 320 square feet of living space, respectively. Most have an 8.5-foot-high interior, although some varieties provide an additional foot of vertical space.
Some container home enthusiasts are looking for a “tiny home” feel and find a single container to be sufficient for their living space needs, while others opt to stack and combine containers and remove walls to create more spacious, open living areas.
Where to Buy Shipping Containers: Choosing New or Used
The condition of a shipping container largely determines the price you’ll pay. Shipping containers fall into four main categories of use:
New (One-Trip) Shipping Containers
In the shipping world, containers that have been used on one trip are considered “new.” These containers are typically manufactured overseas—most commonly in China—packed with cargo and shipped elsewhere. Once the goods inside have been unloaded, the container is sold as a new or one-trip container.
They are usually in excellent condition, although they may have a few cosmetic flaws from their journey, and are also the most expensive category of the container.
These used containers have been used for more than one trip but are still in good enough condition to be used for shipping. Cargo-worthy containers tend to be priced lower than one-trip containers, but how much lower depends on their condition.
Wind and Watertight (WWT) Containers
“Wind and Watertight” containers generally have roughly 10 to 15 years in service shipping cargo before being “retired.” The cosmetic contrast between WWT containers and new containers is striking. Faded paint, interior and exterior rust and dents are common, although they are still wind- and waterproof, with functioning cargo doors and seals, intact flooring and no holes in their structure.
Not surprisingly, as-is containers are the lowest-priced category of containers, offering considerable value but also considerable risk. These containers should be inspected carefully before purchasing, as they are not guaranteed to be free of leaks or other structural issues.
Where to Buy Shipping Containers
The ease with which you can find a shipping container for building a container home depends largely on your location. If you live near a large port or railroad hub, you’re likely to have plenty of options. Otherwise, you may have to do your shopping online or choose from just a single local or regional dealer.
Shopping with Local Container Dealers
The primary advantage of buying from local dealers is that they live where they sell, so their reputation sticks with them. Still, it’s important to do your homework; consider how long they’ve been in business and look at online reviews and ratings to see what other customers’ experiences have been like before you commit to buying.
Shopping with Individual Container Dealers
Occasionally, you can find shipping containers being sold by individuals, often through Craigslist, eBay, or even Facebook Marketplace. These sellers are often highly motivated, but in most cases won’t offer any guarantees on quality or structural soundness.
You may also have to arrange for transport and delivery of the container, which can make an otherwise good deal less lucrative. Careful inspection of the container and a full understanding of the total cost of purchase is critical in this buying scenario.
Shopping with Direct Container Suppliers
Buying from direct suppliers of shipping containers has several advantages. They usually have a large inventory of containers, so you’ll have more choices (often at lower prices). You’ll also be able to conduct most or all of the transaction online, which is convenient, but it may also mean you won’t be able to see the container in person before you buy it.
However, direct suppliers are more likely to provide quality guarantees and more generous return policies than small local dealers or individual sellers.
How to Get the Best Price on a Shipping Container
In the high-priced one-trip container category, the cost of a container may be influenced by several factors, including the cost of steel, manufacturing capacity in Asian countries, the state of trade between China and the rest of the world and even regional economic conditions within the U.S. For used containers, the container’s condition will play a major role in its price, but regional availability and potential delivery costs can also drive prices up or down.
Whether you’re buying new or used, the following tips can help you pay the lowest possible price on your shipping container when looking for where to buy shipping containers:
- If you can’t get a container locally, avoid shipping and delivery costs by renting a truck with a tilting bed or trailer and transport it yourself.
- Search Craigslist in your city as well as neighboring large cities, especially those close to a port or rail hub, for better selection and possible deals. You may also be able to catch a good deal on eBay.
- Look for shipping containers made from Cor-Ten Steel, which is the most durable and long-lasting material and will give you the best long-term value for your investment.
- If possible, enlist the services of a third-party inspector—preferably one certified by the Institute of International Container Lessors (IICL)—to ensure the container you’re considering is in house-worthy shape and avoid costly repairs down the road.
- Always negotiate on price. Current trade deficits have created a glut of containers in many places, and sellers need the space being occupied by the containers they’re trying to sell. If you can’t get them to budge on price, at least insist on free delivery.
Due to their durable construction, minimalist design and modest environmental footprint, container homes continue to surge in popularity. If you’re looking for an alternative to traditional homes made from brick, stucco or vinyl siding, a container home may check off all the important boxes for your residential wish list.
With the container-buying tips provided above, you’ll be well-equipped to take the first step in your container home journey. Hopefully this has helped answer the question “where to buy shipping containers”.