Are Container Homes Cheaper to Build?

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Container homes can come out cheaper to build than traditionally built homes. However, this highly depends on the type of foundation you need to buy, its location, the features and interior finishes you choose and the type of shipping container you select. The type of container largely dictates the price, depending on its size, whether it’s been used or brand new and level of usage. Another thing to note are the costs for container hauling, treatment and insulation.

Image from Shipping Container Tiny Homes: 11 Designs to Fall in Love With – More Life, Less House (morelifelesshouse.com)

Shipping containers for a small home today typically cost anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000. You can easily amp this up to $100,000 by adding containers and kitting out the interiors. On average, a container home is three times less than a traditionally built home of the same size. However, there are big factors to know of that dictate the price of your container home: (1, 2)

  • Land: Like all homes, the location of your site plays a big factor. Is it close to the city? Is it complete with utilities? Are the taxes for the area high?
  • Foundation: A benefit container homes pose is being elevated on stilts that it can make use of rocky, uneven plots of land. The material and labor cost of the foundation itself is also significantly lowered, only needing support at its four corners. Regardless, these foundation systems are available for shipping container homes:
    • Trench foundations: A hole is dug into the ground and filled with concrete.
    • Slab foundations: Concrete is laid on top of the first, then the shipping home container is placed on that.
    • Pier foundations: Columns elevate the structure off the ground, keeping it safe and dry.
  • Type of Container: It currently costs between $3000-$5000 for a brand new shipping container, some as costly as $8000. Used containers vary in price depending on the dealer and the state of damage they’ve endured.
  • Insulation: Heavily needed for every container home as a metal box will bring in all heat and cold. Proper insulation for your container is needed and it’ll be more expensive for premium ones that are less bulky and take up less interior space.
  • Amenities, features and interior finishes
  • Hardware: Your doors and windows
  • Finishes: Flooring, painting, roofing
  • Utilities: The plumbing and electrical system

If this sounds like a lot of work, time consuming or difficult to source and coordinate all the different elements, it’s cost effective to opt for pre-built shipping container homes. These are fully equipped, insulated, treated, etc. and go for around $30,000. (1)

Breaking Down the Cost behind Containers

Container homes last about an average of 15-25 years in life depending on the level of care and maintenance given to the home.

Container home prices vary according to size and condition. The sizes of these containers are 8 feet wide by either 20 feet long to the larger 40 foot long container. A 20 foot container equates to about 160 square feet of area while the 40 foot container gives a bigger area of 320 square feet. Containers average 8.5 feet high but are available higher. On average people usually purchase four to six containers for one home. (4)

The condition of containers is a little more complex. If being on a budget you plan to recycle any container, know there may be some health risks involved if they were previously shipping chemicals or have endured severe rust. A pricier option but being on the safer side (health wise), would be buying brand new containers that have never been shipped. These typically come from China. (2,4)

Reusing containers is definitely cheaper and more eco-friendly, however be cautious of their certifications, which will help you understand their strength, quality and what they were made for. Some containers were certified to ship goods while the stricter certifications require containers to be air tight and water tight. Some containers are classified as “one trip” meaning it only went through one shipment or “as is” and these can come out saving you more initially but have toxic chemicals, have rust, holes or doors that don’t seal. (4)

Also check if your dealer will offer delivery, handling or have large inventories. Containers can be bought from either national or local dealers, see what they offer in terms of price and services before assessing which is the better deal. For example, 20 foot containers only need a standard forklift and tow truck to move around while 40 foot containers would need a crane. Heavier machinery means renting more expensive equipment. (4)

Image from Is the Cost of Shipping Container Homes Cheaper than Regular House? (unhappyhipsters.com)

Prefabricated shipping container homes offer several benefits such as set price costs, uniform factory installation and quality control, standardized build and inspection, professionally installed insulation and interior finishes, handling of delivery and even assisting in sourcing other suppliers or services that they’ve worked with. (3)

Too complex to add it all up and compare? Just check out these pre-built container homes that will give you a quicker price comparison. Shipping Container Houses: 5 for Sale Right Now (curbed.com)

How to Reduce Costs Further

As it is, the container itself already gives you a strong flat metal roof, corrugated exterior walls, foundation work only on the four corners (as opposed to the entire home footprint) and base flooring. (5)

Container homes naturally also take much quicker to build, ranging from days to weeks compared to months. Less construction and building time equates to more savings in labor and work. (3)

Be mindful of the factors that can drive up the cost of your container home as well, such as high quality thin insulation, that retain the exterior look without eating away too much space inside. Certain delivery and offloading techniques depending on your site and situation may require having to rent bigger machines and equipment.

If you’re trying to bring the price down, here are a few areas of savings one can consider:

Scale it Down to a Smaller Footprint

“The average household size has almost been cut in half from 1920 to 2015, presumably a function of fewer multi-generational households and fewer children per household. The takeaway then is that despite having 4.5 times as much room in a house now than they did back in 1920, people don’t really seem 4.5 times more fulfilled.”  (5)

Our society has grown into a “more space is good” mentality, and although it may be square footage we’re used to, it may not be exactly what we need. If we’re able to scale down our livable area (perhaps combine living spaces even into hybrid spaces), we not only reduce the amount of container to buy and treat, but less square feet for property taxes, to clean, heat, cool and light up!

Try Going For Undesirable Land Plots

Having fewer site work for foundation requirements, container homes can bridge over rocks, low spots and other problem areas. Compare this to traditionally built homes that need a large expanse of land that is relatively uniform in nature.

Sites that have too many trees pose big hurdles to traditional homes as you may have to pay a hefty price to cut and clear those through. Container homes on the other hand being slender and long can skirt around those trees or any other irregular shaped plots!

Typically these would be undesirable pieces of land for site-built homes, being too difficult and costly to work with. Therefore, you may get the land at a lower price and bring out an innovative way to build container homes or stumble upon a spectacular view.

Image from Spectacular Container House with an Unbeatable Location | Living in a Container

References:

  1. PropertyClub Team. (2022, January 8). How much does it cost to build a shipping container home? PropertyClub. Retrieved July 2022, from https://propertyclub.nyc/article/how-much-does-it-cost-to-build-a-shipping-container-home
  2. Yuri, S. (2022, March 1). Is the cost of shipping container homes cheaper than regular house? Unhappy Hipsters. Retrieved July 2022, from https://unhappyhipsters.com/shipping-container-homes-cost/
  3. Marshall, L. (2021, November 3). Shipping Container Homes Explored: One-key™ blog. ONE. Retrieved July 2022, from https://onekeyresources.milwaukeetool.com/en/are-shipping-container-homes-cheaper
  4. Barber, M. (2020, April 10). Everything you need to know about shipping container homes. Curbed. Retrieved July 2022, from https://archive.curbed.com/2020/4/10/21165288/shipping-container-house-build-cost
  5.  Discover Containers. (2022, June 22). The truth about container home costs. Discover Containers. Retrieved July 2022, from https://www.discovercontainers.com/affordable/