People Are Turning Shipping Containers Into Tiny Homes. Here Are the Pros and Cons

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To most people, a 2018 Ram ProMaster is just a vehicle. For Chelsey Hathman, it’s home. 

Chelsey Hathman, 29, renovated her van to live in full-time.

Squeezed out of her Texas condo by the hidden costs of homeownership, such as maintenance and homeowners association fees, Hathman, 29, sold the place and moved into her 60-square-foot van. “I wanted financial freedom,” she says. 

But living in a van is only one step toward Hathman’s ultimate goal: living in a shipping container. 

“What I really want is to be able to save up enough money to buy a container home for myself,” says Hatham. “It would be much more affordable for me than a condo or larger house.”

A container home is a dwelling made from recycled steel shipping containers that may have been used as a cargo carrier on a ship, train, or truck. Because they’re small and repurposed, container homes are seen as environmentally friendly. And though they come with unique costs, like permits and land ownership, they can be much cheaper than a traditional home.

Chelsey Hathman’s 2018 Ram ProMaster.

“A lot of millennials don’t really see financial freedom in their future.” says Hathman. “Our wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. And so owning a regular home is outside the realm of possibility for too many of us.”

Chelsey isn’t the only one thinking of container homes: Eighty six percent of Americans said they would buy a tiny home as their first home, according to a survey conducted in late 2020 by Investment Property Exchange Services (IPX 1031). Among those who were surveyed, 65% said that affordability was a factor. With the cost of homes skyrocketing and wage stagnation, this trend is likely to continue.

Income inequality and the increasing burden of debt has led to a large following of the Tiny Living Movement, which advocates for living in smaller homes and maintaining a minimalist lifestyle. The global market for tiny homes is expected to grow by nearly $6 billion between 2020 and 2024, according to market research from Technavio. Dr. Luis Torres, a research economist at the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, recognizes affordable housing difficulty. “The issue of income inequality in our country has been an ongoing issue for far too long. And the pandemic only accelerated that inequality,” he says.

Small homes and affordable housing seem to go hand in hand, and an increasingly popular tiny living option is container homes. If you’re among those who are considering a container home, here’s what to know before you buy one.

What Is a Container Home?

Generally, container homes are repurposed shipping containers that are more than 15 years old and no longer suitable for carrying cargo, making them available for purchase by the public. 

This makes containers a useful tool for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, an organization dedicated to building affordable homes for low-income families.  

How Much Are Shipping Container Homes? 

The cost of a shipping container home will vary on a number of factors such as size, design, layout and the number of containers used for the home. In general, container homes are considered more cost-effective than traditional homes because they take up less room. 

“We use container homes because we are running out of land,” says Celeste Cox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Collin County, Texas.

But the cost of a container home goes beyond the cost of the container itself. “While anyone can buy a container, building a shipping container home requires more work,” says Cox. No matter if you’re trying to build the home yourself or will hire an outside company to do it, building a container home requires that you own the land, have a permit, and get permission from the city. All of that costs money.

When you factor in the costs of customization, permits, government approval, materials, and labor, a container home can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $175,000 according to Rise, an online resource for sustainable home improvement. 

Pros and Cons of Shipping Container Homes 

Affordability

Pros

  • A container home typically costs less than a traditional home—from $10,000 to $175,000

  • Container homes hold value and last longer than other types of small houses if you care for them

Cons

  • The supply cost of containers has doubled over the past five years, and is expected to grow as container homes gain more popularity

  • While container homes are cheaper than traditional homes, they are still costly when you factor in required permits and land ownership

Space

Pros

  • Container homes can be for ideal young couples, empty nesters, and single individuals who don’t need much space

  • Adding another unit to expand your home is doable via stacking, almost like having Lego blocks of containers

Cons

  • Not ideal for larger families made up of more than two people

Customization

Pros

  • If you have strong DIY skills,  customizing a container home is a lot easier and cost effective

  • Adding amenities (e.g., pool, gym, studio, etc.) is an option

Cons

  • Outsourcing customizations to a third-party company can be much more expensive than DIY

Environment and Health

Pros

  • Less land and resource usage = more eco friendly

  • You are reusing and recycling retired containers that may otherwise sit in a landfill

  • Renewable power roofing can act as both an energy source and reliable roof insulation

Cons

  • Using containers that haven’t reached retirement isn’t eco-friendly since these containers can still be used by shippers

  • Many containers have been heavily treated with pesticides and chemicals to keep unwanted stowaways (such as rats) away

  • Improper removal of pesticides and chemicals can lead to toxic waste

  • Many containers are insulated with spray foam insulations that use polyurethane, which can cause health problems

Government Policy

Pros

  • States and counties are becoming more open to container homes and giving building permits

Cons

  • If you live in an urban area, a permit is non-negotiable

  • Even if building a container home is legal in your state, the local county and municipality have the final say and could say no

  • Pushback usually comes from zoning laws. Before you build, research your local regulations

What is the Standard size of a shipping container home?

Container homes typically come in two standard sizes: 20 by 8 feet (160 square feet) or 40 by 8 feet containers (320 square feet). Because of their size, they aren’t ideal for large families “They’re really good options for maybe one or two people,” says Tony Lopez, founder and CEO of Alternative Living Spaces, a producer of container homes

Are shipping container homes safe?

Shipping container homes are considered safe because of the durable and reliable nature of the container itself. Shipping containers are designed to brave some of the harshest conditions, including extended periods of saltwater exposure. “They’re probably one of those durable products on the planet,” Lopez says. “Container homes are designed to have up to 60,000 pounds on the inside, and up to 400,000 pounds stacked on top of them.” 

Even if the shipping container is structurally safe and sound, don’t forget it can still be dangerous in other ways. There are several treatment chemicals used in shipping containers to keep vermin away. One of these chemicals is Radaleum FHP-60. It has virtually no fumes so it’s particularly dangerous in that it can go unnoticed. So make sure the container is professionally treated and washed before moving into one to avoid health risks.

Another risk to consider is where you decide to build your container home. If you live in an area that’s prone to natural disasters, it’s crucial to properly mount the container to the ground, and employ other necessary safety precautions to keep your home and family safe.

What States Allow Shipping Container Homes?

Every state has different allowances for tiny home living. However, while building in your state may be legal, the decision to give you the green light legally resides with your local government. So make sure to review the laws in your state along with any requirements you’d need to fulfil beforehand.

You can find a full breakdown of each state’s laws, tiny home friendliness, and other relevant information here

How Long Does A Shipping Container Home Last?

The life expectancy of a container home is on par with traditional housing. But just like any house, maintenance and climate consideration are crucial. Lopez advises to treat rust regularly and make sure you are maintaining the container well, and your home should “last your lifetime.”

Bottom Line

Container homes can offer various benefits such as affordability, a personalized home space, and a smaller carbon footprint. But they aren’t without downfalls and can still be pricey depending on where you live and how many containers you want to build your home. So make sure to do your research. 

“Living out of my van was a way of saving money so that I could buy land and build my own house,” says Chelsey. “Building a container home costs a fraction of what it costs to build a conventional home. And I can fully customize it so I feel like I can have full ownership.”