Do Shipping Container Homes Have Staying Power?

When Amy and Shane Cargo chose to invest in a shipping container as their dream home, neighbors of all kinds lent a hand to construct the 1,500-square-foot home in Mosier, a small city in rural Oregon.

This village of helpers included a retired steel fabricator, who spent hours reviewing their plan and supervising on the job site, as well as a neighbor who used his tractor to shine bright lights on the project as the couple rushed through the night to get the roof “dried in” ahead of a predicted storm.

Building a home from shipping containers took the couple five years to finish — a process Shane Cargo compares to an old-fashioned barn raising. The result was a cozy retreat featuring five shipping containers: three for the main house, one for storage and one that the family of three used as a tiny home while they built the primary residence.

“The finished project is incredibly robust and there’s so much value. The materials are so fun to work with and everything you’re doing will last,” Shane Cargo says. “But people have to be realistic. You don’t take delivery on three 40-foot shipping containers and think you’re going to turn it into a house without knowing there’s going to be challenges.”

[READ: The Guide to Off-Grid Homes.]

What Is a Shipping Container Home?

Shipping container homes are single- or multi-family residences that use new or used shipping containers as their primary material. Designed to withstand long-distance ocean travel, shipping containers are made of heavy-duty, corrosion-resistant steel and are extremely durable. Shipping containers come in two standard sizes, which can be connected together to make larger rooms.

Pros of Shipping Container Homes

— Modular shipping container homes can be faster to build than a custom stick-built house.

— Smaller container homes may be less expensive than traditional building methods; a container tiny home can cost between $10,000 to $25,000.

— Reusing shipping containers can help the environment by keeping these containers in use.

— More lenders and industry pros are finding success with innovative real estate like container homes.

Cons of Shipping Container Homes

— Containers have variable prices and can become pricier with inventory fluctuations.

— Code or zoning issues can add to the cost of a container home and some states have tougher requirements.

— Not all container-home companies will work in every state because of transportation costs.

— It can be difficult to do the project by yourself or as a DIY home because of tools and weight.

[Read: How Much Does It Cost to Build a Tiny Home and Maintain It?]

What to Consider With a Shipping Container Home

Buyer, beware: That’s the message most container-house builders and architects have for people interested in whether the container-home trend is worth it. Volatile material prices, labor costs and specialty designs tend to drive up the expenses associated with container homes, they warn, so buyers should be prepared to spend the same or more that they would on a comparably sized stick-built custom home.

“There is tuition to pay for inexperience,” says Leslie Horn, founder and CEO of Three Squared, a Detroit firm that specializes in what it calls “cargo architecture,” building commercial buildings like restaurants and residential homes out of shipping containers. Three Squared saw such a need for education around container homes that it launched a podcast to educate consumers, she says.

“It’s not for everybody,” Horn says. “You need to hire people who know what they are doing or it will cost you to clean up the mess. … There are three important parties in (container) building: the owner, who needs to know what they want and the budget; the architect and the general contractor. All three have to be on the same page or it will fail.”

On the plus side, container homes tend to be visually stunning, environmentally sustainable and affordable if done properly. Most states allow for container homes, and people who live in them say the value is there for the long term, according to builders such as Jon Meier, president of Houston-based Backcountry Containers.

“You really have to take your time on the initial phases,” says Meier, a former aerospace engineer turned builder who had a television show about container homes on HGTV and recently finished a project for the professional wrestler known as The Undertaker.

Like Horn, Meier said many people walk into his office expecting container homes to be inexpensive or simpler to construct than other residential builds.

“Shipping containers fluctuate with the economy, just like wood. Containers during COVID cost two times as much as they had previously,” Meier said. “But if people start with the right expectations, it can be beautiful. You walk into one of our projects and you don’t feel like you’re in a shipping container. … We’re a company that’s open to doing it because I like the challenge.”

Banks also used to balk at lending to container builds, but that’s changing, says architect Breck Crandell, director of design for Three Squared. Cargo architecture makes sense financially because there are “10 different ways to build a home, not just one way,” Crandell says.

“We’re at a tipping point where the old way of doing things has met its match. The demand for new housing has surpassed the availability of new materials, and it is now causing a backlog,” Crandell says.

[READ: How Sustainability Design Can Make a Difference]

How Much Do Container Homes Cost?

Purchasing a basic shipping container costs $1,800 to $8,300 on average, not including shipping, depending on its size, age and condition, according to home improvement network and information company Angi. Containers come new for higher prices or used with a varying history of wear and tear. New containers may have taken one or no trips, and cost between $5,000 and $9,500, while a used shipping container can cost as low as $1,400. Delivery fees add an average of $3,000, Angi says. Small shipping container homes start between $10,000 and $40,000 for the building, and a larger one can quickly exceed $100,000, according to Angi, with the price impacted by size, materials, finishes and accessories.

According to HomeAdvisor, converting a shipping container into a tiny home costs about $19,600. A shipping container costs around $1,500 to $5,000 and will require insulation, plumbing, electrical wiring, windows, doors, interior walls and interior finishes.

In addition to the shipping container purchases, buyers must weigh the costs of professional services to make the space into living quarters, as well as tools and materials to build it. Just like with any other home you build, you’ll need to install electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling, insulation and drywall to make it a functional living space. You will also need a roof to withstand the elements. Roof installation can range from $5,000–$45,000, depending on the size and materials, according to Angi. There are also property and site costs to consider.

Prefabricated Is an Option

At Relevant Buildings in Oregon, Carl Coffman has developed a system that uses shipping containers as the frame for his prefabricated homes and other buildings. Coffman said he chose to build with containers because they offer longevity, and they are smaller than stick-built homes, generally, so they have a smaller carbon footprint.

Its average two-bedroom, one-bath model at around 800 square feet costs between $197,000 to $210,000 to finish in the shop; that price increases to $230,000 to $270,000 for Relevant to construct the home for a client on-site, Coffman said. Larger homes, like a three-bedroom, two-bath model at between 1,000 to 1,500 square feet, can cost up to $285,000 to $300,000.

The all-in costs for on-site building includes excavation and foundation installation, utility connections, insulation, inside work and other costs, Coffman said.

Other costs for Coffman’s brand of “elegant upcycling” with a container build include where the home is built, Coffman said. For example, Relevant Buildings only focuses on Oregon and Washington state because of transportation and permitting requirements.

Shane Cargo, a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, and Amy Cargo, a speech-language pathologist, said they also love their container home because it is a defense against rot and pests as well as being strong enough to stand up against wind, storms and fires.

They chose to use “one trip,” or new shipping containers, so they were clean and longer lasting. Depending on the local climate, the average lifespan of a container home is typically around 25 years but the couple put in extra insulation, used specialty paint and put a 50-year roof on it.

The Cargos lost their New Jersey home during Hurricane Sandy, so they wanted security as well as an investment. A container home meets that need and then some, Amy Cargo said.

“We’re up off of the ground here, so when it comes to fire season, we’re feeling pretty confident,” Amy Cargo says. “There was a little part of me that worried it would feel cold inside because of the metal. But with the smaller rooms, it’s comfortable.”

Shane Cargo agrees. “It’s not austere. It’s modern.”

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