How To Purchase Your Shipping Containers
So you’ve decided to take the plunge and living the shipping container home lifestyle. You have your home plans, you’ve picked a site, and you’ve checked local zoning and permitting rules. You’re all set to turn a steel shipping container into your own little home. Now it’s time to find and buy your shipping container(s). But finding the best possible container for your needs is not always as simple as hopping online and clicking the order button.
Find a distributor
Depending on where you live, you may be able to score a shipping container just by making a quick trip to the local port. If you don’t live near a part, though, buying a shipping container is a little more complicated.
The first step to buying your shipping container is to find a reputable distributor. According to Barry Naef, director of the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association, the shipping companies who actually use the shipping containers for shipping don’t necessarily want to be in the business of selling their containers to private individuals. They would rather sell their containers to dealers, who can then sell them to people looking to use the containers to build shipping container homes. Naef suggests that people interested in purchasing shipping containers check the list of dealers on the Eco Green Sources website. Green Cube Network (http://www.greencubenetwork.org/shipping-container-dealers_3/) also has a fantastic search tool to find local dealers. Our clients and readers have also had great luck with Shipped, which has one of the largest shipping container selections on the web and very reasonable prices, with shipping costs included. Obviously, the more local a dealer the better, since it will be that much easier for you to inspect the container yourself and that much cheaper to have it delivered to your site. Another benefit of Shipped is that it allows you to search for containers by city, which can save you a ton of money and headache.
You can also just use Google to find a dealer. Search for “shipping container dealer” or “buy shipping container” and your location (city and/or state). If all else fails, there’s always eBay, Gumtree, Alibaba, or even Amazon.
Once you find a dealer, the dealer can make the arrangements necessary to transport your container to you via an 18-wheeler truck. Make sure you let your dealer know that you don’t need a cargo-worthy container, you just need a watertight one. A cargo-worthy container is one where there are metal channels on the bottom of the container that help container-moving machinery but don’t matter to you at all.
If you can, try to find a distributor who is willing to do (or has already done) some basic modifications to the shipping container prior to the sale. Some of the alterations necessary to turn a shipping container into a home require welding and cutting into steel, and these are things most people simply can’t take on as DIY projects. Therefore, you might need to hire a licensed welder. You may be able to avoid all or part of this expense if some of the welding and cutting can be done at the shipyard or fabrication shop. You might also consider purchasing a shipping container that is manufactured specifically for building shipping container homes.
One of the most important things to consider when buying a shipping container is size. Shipping container dimensions are fairly standard, but if your plan is to join multiple shipping containers when you build your shipping container house, you probably want to buy all the same brand of containers. If you worry about feeling claustrophobic, and you have the budget, you should also consider “high cubes.” High cubes are about a foot taller than standard containers. That extra foot makes a big difference in how spacious the home feels.
The length of shipping containers ranges from 8 feet to 53 feet. 20 feet and 40 feet are the most common lengths. Forty foot containers are the easiest to find and tend to be the best value.
When choosing a size, remember to consider how the size of the container can cause the cost of transportation and modification to go up. Because each manufacture has slightly different tolerance levels (usually +-5mm), make sure you get the container’s exact dimensions from the supplier or distributor.
Consider age and condition
The age and condition of the container you use is also important. You’ll choose between containers that are basically new “one trippers” and retired containers that are eight to ten years old. New and one-trip containers are basically the same thing. One trip containers have been used to ship a single cargo load and are sold once they reach their destination. New or one trip containers tend to be in better condition than used containers. This makes them a little easier to build with and gives them a longer expected lifespan. You also have less of a risk of unknown chemical contamination. And, of course, as a general matter, the older a container is, the more likely it is to have rust, warping, and dents.
That’s not to say you should only consider pristine containers. Used containers have their own advantages. They’re cheaper, and you can usually get them to your site a lot faster. The decision of whether to buy new or used containers will most likely come down to your budget, your goals for your home, and your plans. When artist Brook van der Linde built a DIY container home, she prioritized cost and sustainability over perfect condition. She says, “Our goal was to use materials that were headed for the landfill. Our containers were constructed in 2005 so they had a good long life going to China and back.”
You can view a container’s history via its serial number, but experts recommend that you look it over yourself prior to purchase. Use a level to check for warping and bring a checklist of potential problems to check for. Look for excessive rust, holes, corrosion, and dents (but expect some dents and light rust). Look at the wooden floor and note if it has holes or smells particularly unpleasant. Make sure the container is watertight (look to see if you can see any daylight coming through the roof or walls). Check to see that the doors and locking bars work properly. Get on the roof and check for any issues on the roof. Finally, make sure the container’s 11-digit identification code is intact.
If you can’t examine the container yourself, consider hiring an inspector from the Institute of International Container Lessors to look at it. You can search online for an inspector near the sale location.
What should I expect to pay for a shipping container?
As we noted above, the cost of your shipping container will depend on a number of factors, including size, how new it is, and how far it must be transported. In general, though, you can expect a used 20 foot container to start at around $2,000 USD, a new 20 foot container around $3,000, a used standard 40 foot container around $2,850, a new standard 40 foot container around $5,600. As for high cube containers, a used 20 foot one will start at around $2,200, a new 20 foot container around $3,000, a used 40 foot container around $3,000, and a new 40 foot container around $6,000.
If you’re interested in saving money, you’ll probably want to avoid buying a prefab container that’s already been made to serve as a home or office. These are far more expensive than non-prefab containers and the odds are good that you’ll need to change the layout to suit your needs anyway.
When working with a local distributor, don’t be afraid to negotiate. If the container isn’t in perfect condition, that gives you some leverage to try to get the price down. We’ve heard of 40 foot containers going for a mere $500. Remember that there is a trade deficit with other countries, and shipping containers are piling up in the United States. They take up a ton of space and sellers are often eager to get rid of them, making them motivated to sell the containers for less money. If you can’t get a discount on the container, see if you can get free or discounted delivery.