Where to Build Your Shipping Container Home
Shipping container homes are incredibly versatile. They can be anything you want—from a one room cabin in the woods to a sprawling, multi-level urban masterpiece. That’s not to say there are no restrictions you should consider when planning your shipping container house, though. One of the most important things to think about, if you want to avoid potential headaches down the road, is WHERE you will build your shipping container home and how you will acquire the proper permissions to do so. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you might think. We’ll take it step by step here.
Choosing a Piece of Land
Choosing a piece of land should probably come only after you have designed your storage container house and have a good idea of your budget. Once you know these things, it will be easier to determine whether a piece of land will meet your needs. Further, it’s a good idea to design your shipping container house BEFORE you find land to build it on, so that you don’t commit to a certain piece of land and then feel as if you have to restrict your design to fit that particular piece of land. (Of course, if you already own a piece of land or have your heart set on a particular plot, this won’t apply to you.)
To start with, create a list of requirements for the land where you will build your shipping container home. The list might include things like the general location/region, nearby water (like streams or wells), the type of subsurface soil (sand, peat, clay), how close you’d like to be to neighbors or to the nearest town, how easily you’d like to access the home from the closest road, whether you prefer an open piece of land or one shaded by trees, and size of the plot you’d like to buy, and so on. Once you have this list done, you can start looking for your land. As with any real estate search, a good place to start is with an online search. Most real estate sites (like Zillow, Trulia, and so on) allow you to filter so that you are only searching for empty plots of land.
You could also search through land registries and take a look at the sale price of previously sold pieces of land so that you can determine whether plots in a certain area are likely to fit in your budget. You can also find the land the old-fashioned way: by simply driving around your preferred area and looking for signs advertising land for sale, or by speaking with local people. Before doing this, you’ll want to identify a certain area you’re interested in. Keep it to a 15 mile radius at first. Otherwise, you may get overwhelmed.
Making Sure You Comply with Zoning Requirements
After you select the site for your shipping container house, the next thing you want to do is make sure there aren’t any zoning requirements you may run afoul of by locating your home on that site.
Why might shipping container homes not be compliant with certain zoning or building rules? Well, while shipping containers are certainly very structurally sound, being made of steel rather than wood or aluminum, they are not built with the intended use as residences. There’s no plumbing, no insulation, no electricity. And many building inspectors are not familiar with them.
To check on whether your intended piece of land allows for the placement of a shipping container house, you’ll want to visit your local zoning department to check the regulations and covenants that apply to that particular parcel (you can get the parcel information online or at your county auditor’s or assessor’s office, using the address). Make sure that storage container homes aren’t zoned out of this piece of property.
What is zoning? Zoning is the result of the government’s division of land into parcels and the assignment of certain land use regulations to those parcels. A given piece of property may be zoned for commercial use, for residential use, for industrial use, and so on. Nearly all traditional homes are located on parcels zoned for residential use. Zoning regulations may also direct the size of setbacks from front, back, and side yards. Zoning restrictions can be frustrating for developers and builders, but they serve important purposes. Under most circumstances, you would not want a factory built in a residential neighborhood, or a house built in the middle of a busy downtown commercial district.
Still, dealing with these zoning regulations may be the most difficult part of building a shipping container house. They can present an additional expense and headache on top of the build itself. This is particularly true where the homeowner or builder doesn’t do the proper research ahead of time.
Here are some step-by-step instructions:
- Get the land’s parcel identifying number from your real estate agent, from the county assessor or auditor’s office, or online.
- Go to your municipality’s zoning department. Use the parcel identifying number to determine how the land is zoned.
- While you’re at the zoning department, ask the staff there about the regulations and covenants associated with the zoning category.
- Also ask specifically about any rules that prohibit or apply to shipping containers or modular homes.
- If you have found that your land is zoned for residential use and there are no restrictions on building a shipping container house in that zone, you’re good to go.
- To be extra cautious, you may want to let the zoning department know you plan to build a shipping container home on the land, and perhaps show them an image or blueprint. Now might also be a good time to explain the benefits of container homes and point to examples that have already been built in the state or region.
Assuming you don’t run into any obstacles with the zoning department, the next step is to submit any required documents with the zoning department (there may not be any required), then have your agent place a bid on the land. As an aside, prior to building, you may also want to ask your real estate agent to arrange geotechnical soil tests or other ground tests on the land, just in case there are surface conditions that would make building or maintaining a shipping container home difficult.
As a general rule, zoning regulations in rural areas are going to be far more relaxed than in more urban areas, since there is more land available and it’s typically not as expensive.
Will You Need a Permit?
While you’re at the zoning department, you’ll also want to ask about whether you will need a building permit to build the shipping container home on the piece of land you have chosen. If they can’t give you information on this, they can probably tell you where to get it. If they are able to tell you whether you need a building permit, they should also be able to tell you how to go about getting one.
The likelihood of whether you will get the requested permit will depend on a number of factors. You may be able to assess the likelihood by driving around the surrounding area and looking at the buildings already present. Do you see any nonstandard buildings, such as fixed trailers, log cabins, or container houses? If so, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a permit. The presence of other nonstandard homes is a great indicator that the local zoning department is open to these types of buildings and maybe even already familiar with shipping container homes.
If you anticipate having problems getting a permit for a certain piece of land, you may want to consider researching areas that are more shipping container home-friendly. As mentioned above, rural areas may be an easier bet.
There’s no advice we can give you that will guarantee you will receive a building permit for a container home. There does not exist a set of criteria for having a container home approved. Each municipality or region has its own set of regulations and rules, and all are ostensibly aimed at protecting its residents. Because container homes are still a new building concept, some goverments are taking some time to get caught up. If you follow the steps outlined above, you will definitely improve your chances of your shipping container plans being approved.
Of course, if you don’t mind spending the money and don’t want to deal with the headache, you can always hire a local architect, builder or planner who is familiar with construction of shipping container homes to handle this process for you.