How Hard is it to Build a Container Home?

Building a container home is harder than building a traditional stick-built home. One would need experience or the know-how in how to build with metal structures. The permitting process is also different for container homes. One must be familiar with the shipping container market on what is available, its possible damages, and how to treat them, as well as its structural makeup to safely make modifications.

Image from Modular Shipping Container Home on Steep Slope, Marin, California

There are a lot of ways one may look at containers, to determine their difficulty.

If you’re looking for a set time frame, check out our piece on How Long Does it Take to Build a Container Home? – prefabie. 

We also cover a step-by-step process of building container homes here. How Container Homes are Built (Step by Step Explained!) – prefabie.

The three typical ways to go about obtaining your container home are as follows:(1)

  1. Purchase a container and build it on your own
  2. Hire a contractor to help build your container home
  3. Buy a ready-to-move-in container home from a manufacturer

In this article, we’ll explore options 1 and 2 as buying a prefabricated container home from a manufacturer takes care of a lot of the hard steps. You’d need to have some construction experience to build it all by yourself. Building with metal structures is also a different skill, so you’ll likely encounter a contractor for some step in the process.

Building your container home yourself is possible, though rarely DIY to 100%, and may take some time in the learning process. If you do opt to hire a contractor to build your home, try to choose one with experience in handling container homes or metal structures. This saves you time and money by encountering less mistakes. (2)

It greatly helps if you can also choose one contractor who can build the project to the end, as opposed to having to engage several contractors during construction. This can save you a lot of time and possible potholes in the build. (3, 4)

Note the major factors that will make a difference between a traditional home and a container home will be road access to your property, and building permits. This is due to the fact that container homes are still relatively new, therefore the way to your site might not be accessible via a 20 to 40-foot truck, and not all local planning offices have set regulations for these.

Similar to traditional, stick-built homes, container homes still go through a building process: (2)

  1. Site prep and foundation construction
  2. Utility provisioning from service providers
  3. Select, purchase, deliver, and place containers
  4. Structural modifications to the containers
  5. Roof work, if required/desired
  6. Interior wall framing inside the containers
  7. Electrical, plumbing, and mechanical work
  8. Insulation inside the containers
  9. Interior wall/ceiling finishing and trim
  10. Flooring
  11. Equipment and appliances
  12. Final touches
  13. Furnishing

Know that each step of the building process has a cost implication. Costs can vary according to building size, land layout, siting, foundations, and materials — each step in construction has an opportunity to save or spend more. For a rundown on those costs (and scroll all the way down for some DIY container homes for inspiration!), check out this piece. DIY Shipping Container Homes: Why and How to Build One

Image from 2000 sq ft Modular Shipping Container Home, East Hampton, New York 

Common Mistakes in Container Home Building

Be Picky With Your Containers and Know Your Options!

Current container homeowners are finding out much later on how many container sizes are out there! 

Yes, the most common and standard sizes are your 20 and 40 foot long shipping containers, with a standard eight foot height. However, there are also some containers that measure another foot higher (high cube container), which is ideal as you can use that extra foot for your overhead utilities and ceiling insulation and end with more headroom height. (3)

A big misstep is also never seeing the containers for themselves before purchasing them. Unless you’re spending a bit more on a one-trip container, the cheaper and more eco-friendly option is to get a really used shipping container to recycle.

The downside to these is that some of their damages may be too severe and cost you more in the renovation. Those with big dents and deep rust (yes container steel can rust) will definitely weaken your container home much quicker. 

At least if you see the damage for yourself, you can assess its condition and how much work you’ll need to put in whether that’s just repainting or replacing an entire metal patch and weld. Many homeowners can fall into the trap of just being delivered the container without knowing its condition, or sent photos of only the container’s good angles and none of its damages. 

If you cannot make the trip to inspect the container in person, request for a 360 video of the container or photos of all its joints, the top surface, and the bottom face of the container as these are the areas most prone to corrosion and damage at sea. (3)

Ensure Your Container Home is Code Compliant

Even after you’ve constructed your container home and are ready to move in, your container home can still be taken down if constructed without a building permit. Having gone through all that money, time, and effort, you want to ensure this crucial step isn’t overlooked, or it can all go to waste — literally. 

Consult your local planning office on your floor plans and design before any construction to avoid huge losses in time and money.  They can request you change your design entirely to be compliant with building codes and regulations. The building officials’ approval may take some time whether a couple of weeks to months, however, it is absolutely required for all kinds of homes, therefore a necessary evil. (3)

Build Your Home Suitable to Your Climate

Shipping containers are made of a stronger than usual steel, and yes, they are shipped overseas from country to country. However, in order to convert these containers into a habitable space, they need to be fitted to your climate for human comfort.

Thermal insulation is necessary for all container homes, but the type of insulation to use will depend on your climate.  (3)

“For instance, in areas with lots of rain, you need to ensure your insulation provides you with a seamless vapor barrier. The best option would be to use spray foam insulation.

In very warm, dry climates your insulation should focus on keeping your container home cool. Generally, in this case, you wouldn’t want a seamless vapor barrier.”(3)

Besides your local climate, the available budget and the container’s condition will also come into play as some insulation material takes up more space than others. The insulation most commonly used are spray foam, insulation panels, and blanket insulation. There are also several eco-friendly insulation alternatives such as recycled denim and newspapers. (3)

Having the right kind of insulation for your container is important in regulating your indoor temperatures, protecting you from scorching summers and freezing winters. 

This also helps reduce problems in condensation, which can significantly corrode and weaken your container home.

Image from Top 10 Best Ways To Insulate Your Shipping Container Home – Sulex International

Know a Container’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Shipping containers are made of corrugated, weathering steel. This makes them much stronger than regular steel, allowing them to withstand extreme weather conditions at sea while being fully loaded and stacked on one another. However, the container’s structural strength lies in its corners and corrugation.

Therefore, when we modify the container too much by cutting and welding for our doors, windows, canopy, and balcony, we reduce its strength. When we need to combine several containers or the design is too fantastical, the container will need to be reinforced with other structural members. For this, you’ll need to consult your engineers or building professionals on how to safely support your container home.

A lot of cutting and welding means more materials, labor, and time. Therefore, container homes don’t end up coming out as cheap as many homeowners initially expected. The total cost could be comparable to that of a stick-built home. Just manage expectations with regards to “how much you can save.” (4)

Avoid excessive cuts and holes by also planning your plumbing and electrical ahead of time. Any holes cut out need to be properly sealed to be airtight, as any gaps could lead to condensation in the home that could weaken the container. 

Lastly, make smart use of your surrounding area and landscaping to protect your container home from receiving direct blows of wind or the hot summer sun.


  1. Should You Build Your Own Shipping Container Home? 
  2. DIY Shipping Container Homes: Why and How to Build One 
  3. 6 Container Home Mistakes to Avoid 
  4. 11 Tips You Need To Know Before Building A Shipping Container Home | ArchDaily