Shipping Container Homes

The Ultimate Guide to Building a Shipping Container Home

The time has come; you're leaving the rental life behind and choosing the new world of homeownership. How exciting! You get to start the process of figuring out exactly what you want and how to get started building your dreams. (cover photo by angeloxwu)


Container Discounts - Build with a Container -intro&outro

By the time you're reading this article and ready to get started, there's one choice that you've already made: you're going to build a home out of shipping containers rather than buying a stick-built home. Beyond that, you may be feeling lost, confused, and even a little helpless. 

That's okay!

These feelings are normal, and we're here to help you better understand the process of building with intermodal shipping containers. By the time you finish this article, you'll have a good idea of next steps for your project.



STEP 1: Create a plan so that you understand the project that you're creating, your goals, your resources, any problems that could arise, and solutions that you'll create. 


STEP 2: You must determine what you're building and where.

  • How many bedrooms and bathrooms?
  • How much storage do you need?
  • Are you interested in a single-story or multi-story building?


STEP 3: Based on what you’re building, you'll next determine who you need to consult with to make this dream a reality.


On site preparation for a shipping container home


When you're thinking of where you want to build this home, you must consider that some states have different regulations and requirements for building structures with shipping containers.


The US is one of the most stringently-legislated countries regarding building with shipping containers, and it's important that you know the parameters before you get started.


We'll use California as an example: You can only use One-Trip containers for a permanent home in the state of California.


California highlighted on a US map


One-Trip containers are containers that have only been on one voyage, from their originating port to the states. This is the newest container condition available that you can buy in the US, as they are all manufactured overseas.


The reason for this is so that you have a direct manifesto of exactly everything that has been contained in a specific container; we’re making sure that there have been no radioactive or toxic materials contained therein. 


We recommend that you seek out a professional who has experience in designing and building shipping container structures, preferably a licensed architect or a builder. Container suppliers are not the best to talk to at this stage, as we will likely not have the best grasp of the requirements and legality of building in your area.




Step 4: You'll choose whether you’re going to be building with or without a permit and assemble your build team.

  • If you're proceeding with a permit, you will most certainly want to hire a professional to help you with the permitting process and beyond. 
  • If you're proceeding without a permit, your next step is to complete your building plan and solicit bids for materials and services.
  • If you’ve hired professionals to do this for you, they’ll take on the responsibility of all of the permitting, material and labor sourcing, and project management.


The professional builder will bid the whole project before they get started so you know generally what the cost of the whole project is before you get started. 


Note: After the build process has begun, there may be changes to the plan that become necessary due to inspections/permitting requirements with your local building department. Other than that, most change orders come from the customer based on design changes after the fact. Change Orders add to the overall cost, so it’s best to flesh out your design decisions to the fullest extent possible before you ask a contractor to bid your project. This will help you prevent surprise cost increases as the project proceeds.  


If you’re DIY-ing it, your next step will be to hit the internet to find quality material suppliers to fit your project with your target budget and timeline.

If you're an Owner-Builder, We strongly encourage you to hire a professional to consult on the project; at the very least, we recommend that you hire a project manager with shipping container structure experience to minimize the pitfalls that would keep your project from being completed on schedule and under budget. Shipping Container Home in Joshua Tree, CA


STEP 5: You'll select whether you'll build on-site or in a modular environment.


Shipping container homes are unique in that they can be easily assembled offsite in a modular construction facility that ensures uniformity in the quality of the build and materials used. The completed container home is then shipped to and installed on the intended land.


We encourage owners to go this route because it is so much more cost and time efficient than your traditional onsite build.


It’s more efficient to assemble in a controlled factory environment than onsite because you don’t experience delays due to weather or unexpected complications with the site (which can and should be worked out while the structure is in the build process to minimize time lost upon delivery!). Regardless of wind, rain, snow, heat and other elemental factors that can cause delay in the building process of site-built structures, modular-built structures are constructed on schedule in an indoor, climate-controlled facility.

modular construction factory environment


A factory environment ensures a consistent work force and a fixed price point. Due to all of the aforementioned factors, the time it takes to complete the project is far shorter, saving months of headache; the environment is completely controlled and the process is streamlined.


This can save many months of build time, change orders, site prep, and permitting red tape, and as we all know, time is money.


We would be remiss not to mention that it saves you a whole bunch of scratch on permitting; because modular construction happens from start to finish in a factory, these facilities are held to high certification standards and are not subject to the same building requirements as a structure built onsite.


You could save tens of thousands of dollars and many months worth of time if you opt for a factory-built container home. 

Shipping container home in Joshua Tree, CA



It's now approaching time for you to get started! Remember: You’re not the first, nor will you be the last person to build a home with shipping containers. Don’t give up-- you’ll get to the finish line as long as you make a plan and stick to it as best as you can and make changes only as necessary.


Our biggest advice: Do your research and hire professionals with good credentials. 


We’re confident that the information we’ve provided you in this blog post and accompanying videos and links will give you a good starting point for building a home with intermodal shipping containers. When you’re ready to pick out your shipping containers for your build, we’d love to help you find many that are perfect for you.


If you’re ready to hand this project over to a professional, check out Steelblox; they can help you get started on a modular construction project with storage containers!

(All photos in this article, with the exception of the cover, are by Home Made Modern, who built a shipping container home with containers purchased from Container Discounts!)


Container Discounts is a nationwide marketplace for the sale of new and used shipping containers. If you're interested in learning more about our products and services click the buttons below.

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Written by Container Guru / September 10, 2020

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