Container Homes Are Becoming the New Norm — Here’s Why

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

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

Hathman, 29, who was being pushed out of her Texas condo by the hidden costs of home ownership like maintenance and homeowners association fees, sold the place and moved into her 60-square-foot van. “I wanted financial freedom,” she says.

However, living in a van is only one step towards Hathman’s ultimate goal: living in a shipping container.

“What I really want is to be able to save enough money to buy a container for my home,” says Hatham. “It would be a lot cheaper for me than an apartment or a bigger house.”

A container house is an apartment made of recycled steel shipping containers that may have been used as a carrier on a ship, train, or truck. Container houses are considered to be environmentally friendly because they are small and unintended. And while they come with unique costs like permits and land ownership, they can be much cheaper than a traditional home.

Chelsey Hathmans 2018 Ram ProMaster.

“Many millennials don’t see financial freedom in their future.” says Hathman. “Our wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. Too many of us cannot have a normal home. “

Chelsey isn’t the only one thinking of container houses: 86 percent of Americans said they would buy a tiny house as their first home, according to a survey conducted by Investment Property Exchange Services (IPX 1031) in late 2020. 65% of respondents said affordability is a factor. This trend is likely to continue given the skyrocketing cost of home ownership and stagnation in wages.

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

Small houses and affordable housing seem to go hand in hand, and an increasingly popular option for tiny living spaces is container houses. If you are among those considering a container home, here are some things you should know before buying one.

What is a container house?

As a rule, container houses are misappropriated shipping containers that are more than 15 years old and are no longer suitable for the transport of freight, so that they are offered for sale to 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 do shipping container houses cost?

The cost of a shipping container home depends on a number of factors, including size, design, layout, and the number of containers used for the home. In general, container houses are considered to be cheaper than traditional houses because they take up less space.

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

However, the cost of a container house goes beyond the cost of the container itself. “While anyone can buy a container, building a shipping container takes more work,” says Cox. Whether you’re trying to build the house yourself or hiring an outside company to build a container house, you need to own the land, have a permit, and get permission from the city. It all costs money.

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

Advantages and disadvantages of shipping container houses



  • A container house usually costs less than a traditional house – from $ 10,000 to $ 175,000

  • Container houses hold value and will last longer than other types of small houses if you maintain them


  • Container shipping costs have doubled in the last five years and are expected to rise as container houses become more popular

  • Container houses, while cheaper than traditional houses, are still expensive when you factor in the permits and land ownership required



  • Container houses are ideal for young couples, empty nests, and individuals who don’t need a lot of space

  • Adding another unit to expand your home can be done by stacking it, much like Lego container blocks



  • If you have a good DIY knowledge, customizing a container house is much easier and cheaper

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

Environment and health


  • Less land and resource consumption = more environmentally friendly

  • You use and recycle old containers that might otherwise be in a landfill

  • Renewable electricity roofs can serve as both an energy source and reliable roof insulation


  • Using containers that have not retired is not environmentally friendly as 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) out

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

  • Many containers are insulated with spray foam insulation made of polyurethane, which can cause health problems

Government policy


  • If you live in an urban area, permits are non-negotiable

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

  • Pushback usually comes from zoning laws. Before building, find out about local regulations

What is the standard size of a home shipping container?

Container houses usually come in two standard sizes: 20 x 8 feet (160 square feet) or 40 x 8 feet (320 square feet). Because of their size, they’re not ideal for large families. “They’re really good options for one or two people,” says Tony Lopez, founder and CEO of Alternative Living Spaces, a manufacturer of container houses

Are shipping container houses safe?

Shipping container houses are considered safe due to the durability and reliability of the container itself. Shipping containers are designed to withstand some of the harshest conditions, including prolonged exposure to salt water. “They’re probably one of those long-lasting products on the planet,” says Lopez. “Container houses are designed so that they can stack up to 60,000 pounds inside and up to 400,000 pounds on top.”

While the shipping container is structurally safe and solid, don’t forget that it can be dangerous in other ways. Various treatment chemicals are used in shipping containers to keep bugs out. One of these chemicals is Radaleum FHP-60. It has practically no fumes, making it particularly dangerous as it can go unnoticed. So make sure the container is professionally treated and washed before moving it to a container to avoid health risks.

Another risk to consider is where you plan to build your container house. If you live in an area prone to natural disasters, it is important to properly ground the container and take other necessary safety precautions to keep your home and family safe.

Which states allow shipping container houses?

Every state has different allowances for small home living. Although building may be legal in your state, the decision to give you the green light is up to your local government. So be sure to check the laws in your state as well as any requirements you need to meet in advance.

For a full breakdown of each state’s law, minuscule residential friendliness, and other relevant information, click here.

How long does a shipping container last at home?

The life expectancy of a container house corresponds to that of traditional living. But just like any home, maintenance and climatic conditions are vital. Lopez recommends treating rust regularly and making sure the container is well maintained and that your home “will last a lifetime”.

Bottom line

Container houses offer various advantages such as affordability, personalized living space and a lower carbon footprint. But they’re not without their drawbacks, and they can still be expensive depending on where you live and how many containers you want to build your home. So make sure to do your research.

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

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