(855) 321-7473

M-F 9am-4pm Eastern

Container Homes Pros and Cons

Shipping Container Homes - Pros, Cons & Costs

By Luke HunterRise Writer
Jul 16, 2017

Container homes are exactly what they sound like; homes made from the steel shipping containers that you see carrying goods everywhere on trains, trucks, and ships. From these giant Lego blocks, people are building homes of all shapes and sizes.

Shipping containers are generally available in 10ft, 20ft, and 40ft. The smallest shipping container can provide about 100 square feet of floor space for a shipping container home. Eight larger containers together can make a two-story house at about 1400 square feet. Hundreds of container micro-apartments together can make a huge apartment building.

Table of Contents

  1. Pros of Shipping Container Homes
  2. Cons of Shipping Container Homes
  3. Are Shipping Container Homes Safe?
  4. What Is The Standard Size of a Shipping Container Home?
  5. How Do You Insulate a Shipping Container Home?
  6. Can You Add a Roof to a Shipping Container Home?
  7. What States Allow Shipping Container Homes?
  8. How Much Are Shipping Container Homes?
  9. How Long Does A Shipping Container Home Last?
  10. Do Shipping Container Homes Rust?
  11. Do Shipping Container Homes Hold Value?
Shipping container home
Shipping Container Home, Costa Rica. Photo Credit: Benjamin Garcia Saxe

Why are shipping containers being used to make homes, studios, cabins, and offices? Well, with about 14 million ‘out-of-service’ containers in the world, there are lots of them available. And playing with giant blocks has a definite appeal!

Besides trendiness, interest in container homes is also part of a wider interest in saving money with prefabricated and modular homes. Many potential homeowners are looking for lower construction and maintenance costs. There is also a perception that container homes are contributing to recycling.

Patrick Bradley Architects container home
Container Home. Photo Credit: Patrick Bradley Architects

Could a container home be a good choice for you? Here are some pros and cons to consider.

Pros of Shipping Container Homes

Prefab Shipping Container Homes

Many shipping container homes are available as prefabricated modular homes, making construction time shorter. Some companies advertise delivery within 10 weeks! Most of the building code inspections are done at the factory, which makes things simpler and quicker. Or if you are designing a custom home or building a do-it-yourself project, the container gives you a fun prebuilt structure to work with.

Ease of Transport and Finding a Site

A worldwide system exists for moving containers around. Once they reach your site, they are relatively simple to set in place on a prepared foundation.

Shipping Container Homes Have Predictable Costs

Most of the work is completed on a factory floor for a fixed price. Delivery to the site, site preparation, foundation, assembly and utility connections are the only variable costs. That said, container homes are not always less expensive. Estimates vary, and some put the savings at 5-10%, depending on what you’re comparing against.

Recycled Shipping Container Homes

The environmental appeal of a container home is the idea that you are re-using a leftover product of the shipping industry to make a home. This can be a good thing, but as we will see, it’s not always true or the best thing.

Some of the advantages, like short construction time and predictable pricing, are the same for all prefabricated and modular homes, not just those made with shipping containers. But container homes benefit uniquely from the worldwide infrastructure built to move shipping containers. Even container home skeptics admit they can be useful where local building expertise is lacking or for emergency shelters that can be moved easily. In these scenarios, the versatility of container transport is a huge advantage.

catskills container cabin outdoor bath
Catskills Container Home. Photo Credit: Porter Fox

Container homes are often marketed as being environmentally friendly because they are said to be made from used containers, thus conserving metal resources. There are lots of old shipping containers out there, no longer in circulation, and repurposing them into homes has a strong appeal. But is a container home really the best use of a container, from a sustainability perspective? Many would disagree.

Cons of Shipping Container Homes

Shipping Container Homes Are Not Always Effective Recycling

Most factory-built container homes are built from ‘one-use’ containers that have only had a single trip. These containers tend to be in good shape, without dents or rust, so they are nice for building with, instead of containers that have gone ‘out-of-service’ and may be damaged from years of use. Taking a box with lots of shipping life out of service after a single use isn’t effective recycling. And there is way more steel in a container than you need to build a house - if recycled as steel, it could make enough steel studs for 14 framed houses the same size.

Shipping Container Homes Could Have Structural Issues

A shipping container is very strong at the corners, but the roof is not that strong, so typically you need to build another roof over it, especially where there will be snow. Also, the corrugated steel walls are essential to the strength of the structure. This means anywhere you cut out a large window, or door opening requires new reinforcement. And when they are stacked together to make larger homes, welded (expensive) reinforcement is needed wherever two containers join at a spot that is not a corner. Any later renovations require significant engineering and welding.

Are Shipping Container Homes Safe?

It’s often not possible to know what has been shipped in a used container – anything from harmless consumer goods to hazardous industrial materials – or what the container has been through. The paints and finishes used on containers are industrial and intended for shipping across the ocean, not residential homes, so that they could contain lead and toxic pesticides.

What Is The Standard Size of a Shipping Container Home?

The size of shipping containers is quite limiting and can quickly be consumed by plumbing, HVAC, insulation, and other systems. A container was designed to fit on a train, which means it’s narrow, and ordinary furniture doesn’t fit right. A standard container is also only 8ft wide and 8 ft 6 in high, which doesn’t leave much headroom after insulation and wiring are installed.

How Do You Insulate a Shipping Container Home?

The narrow shape of a shipping container doesn’t lend itself to insulating the exterior very well. To avoid using up interior space, a relatively thin layer of insulation with a high R-value per inch, such as polyurethane spray foam, is often used. Although spray foam is an effective and airtight insulator, the blowing agents used in many brands of spray foam are powerful greenhouse gases.

Shipping Container Roof Terrace
Shipping Container Roof Terrace. Photo Credit: Alternative Living Spaces

Can You Add a Roof to a Shipping Container Home?

While shipping containers are reinforced at the corners, the existing roof may lack structural integrity. Those looking for container homes capable of support weight, such as weather, should consider if building a roof is right for them. A roof can also provide aesthetic and architectural flair that is common amongst homes in North America. While there are multiple styles of roofs that can be used for a shipping container home, flat roofs, pitched roofs, roof terraces, and living roofs are the most common.

  1. Flat roofs are the simplest, fastest, and least expensive to construct but can be more costly to maintain. It's essential to create a slight pitch for the drainage of rainfall.
  2. Living roof, also known as a green roof, is a roof with introduced plants and greenery. These roof types are both aesthetically and naturally pleasing and provide natural insulation and cooling.
  3. Pitched roofs are roofs that slope downwards and are among the most common roof types found in areas with heavy rainfall and snow. Popular examples of pitched roofs are gables, hip, mansard, gambrel, and skillion.
  4. Roof terraces are creative flat spaces built on top of the roof to expand occupiable or usable space. Many roof terraces are used for small outdoor gardens, eating or lounging areas.

Making a poor insulation decision can have a negative impact on climate change than other kinds of insulation. To construct a well-insulated wall, it would be better to build outward for more wall thickness and use a more environmentally sustainable type of insulation. But then what use is a heavy, corrugated steel exterior if it’s buried in insulation?

Buddina Beach Box by OGE architects
Buddina Beach Box. Photo Credit: OGE architects

As container homes continue to rise in popularity, so do requests for homeowners to build homes with them. Repurposed shipping containers are even popping up as markets, hotels, fairs, and mobile shops at local events. Even with the increasing popularity, your ability to build a home with shipping containers relies heavily on zoning regulations and building codes set forth by the local government. It's essential to do your research, understand zoning and building codes, and speak with the proper housing authorities if anything is unclear.

What States Allow Shipping Container Homes?

Suburban and rural areas tend to be more open to shipping container homes; however, some states are visibly more open to alternative living. Texas, California, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Oregon, and Alaska are among the more progressive states that have, to some level, opened their doors to shipping container homes. Texas already plays host to many container homes. Even though California is known for its red tape, it has been open to container homes and hybrid container homes. Louisana and Tennessee experience some of the most lenient and forward-thinking zoning regulations in the United States. As alternative living options continue to grow, it's only a matter of time before more states in the country begin to allow shipping container homes in designated areas.

How Much Are Shipping Container Homes?

So what will a shipping container home cost? Smaller, more basic container homes can range between $10,000 to $35,000. Large homes built with multiple shipping containers and amenities can range in price from $100,000 to $175,000. Shipping container homes, in some cases, can cost half as much per square foot than traditional stick building. However, it isn't easy to compare apples to apples, and there are many factors to consider.

So what can increase the cost? While land costs and climate requirements are significant considerations, it can also depend on many factors, including:

  • Size, layout, design, and the number of containers required
  • Welding and Fabrication requirements
  • Cleaning cost if the container is used
  • Plumbing and electrical
  • Siding
  • Flooring
  • Kitchen and bathroom finishes
  • Lofts
  • Windows
  • Doors
  • Insulation
  • and more.

There is a report of a simple shipping container home self-built by an engineer in Canada for only $20,000. But a pre-manufactured container home has a price tag that looks more like a regular home.

How Long Does A Shipping Container Home Last?

Shipping container homes should last at least 25 years but will last much longer if they are well maintained or if you use siding to protect the exterior. Rust is the single most common issue that can reduce the lifespan of a shipping container home. It's important to inspect your shipping container home and look for rust spots. Any problematic areas should be treated and repaired to reduce the chance of rust spreading.

Do Shipping Container Homes Rust?

Since shipping container homes are made out of metal, there is the possibility that they may rust. Some shipping containers are initially manufactured with alloys, a process commonly referred to as weathering steel or corten steel, which helps to form a surface level of rust that mitigates further corrosion. The climate where the container is located factors into whether a shipping container home will rust as wet and dry climates affect shipping containers differently.

Do Shipping Container Homes Hold Value?

A well-maintained shipping container home can retain its resale value much like a traditional home. They're relatively easy to resell since they can be loaded onto a truck and shipped almost anywhere. Before purchasing, you may want to inquire as to whether the shipping container home was manufactured for your climate and, if not, inquire as to the modifications you may need to make so that it's appropriate for its intended location.

Honomobo container home
Image courtesy of Honomobo

Here is one example. Honomobo is a builder of pre-designed, factory-built container homes based in Edmonton, Canada. They create homes using one to eight containers with high-quality finishes. Their largest model, HO8, is a two-story home with just over 1400 square feet of floor area.

Container Home price comparison
NOTES: All prices are approximate, based on available data. The land is not included in this comparison and is assumed to be the same for both. *Posted price from Honomobo. **Estimated $220 per square foot construction cost in Canada, not including land or foundation. ***Estimated $1.30 per km per container for shipping, considering Edmonton (Canada) to Winnipeg (Canada) (1300 km).
Honomobo container home
Image courtesy of Honomobo.

You might love to have a container home because you like the idea, the look, the chance to play with blocks in a DIY design, or the quick delivery time for a manufactured model. But don’t assume it will cost less or that it’s necessarily more environmentally sustainable.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2023-08-23T12:45:59+0000

Article by:

Luke Hunter