How To Build A Shipping Container Home With A Small Budget Blog Cover

How To Build A Shipping Container Home With A Small Budget

Posted By: February 1, 2016 In Featured

Want to build your own shipping container home? Start Here.

One of the most common reasons people want to build a shipping container home is because they can be built relatively inexpensively.

In a recent article, we discussed the cheapest shipping container homes ever built!

This isn’t to say that the cost is the only reason to be living in a shipping container home. There are lots of reasons why living in a container home has become so popular.

To construct a shipping container building on a tight budget, you need to be savvy. It is to your advantage to know exactly where you can skimp and save money, but also, where to spend money to get the best results.

If you want to learn how to be savvy about shipping container buildings, keep reading.

Plan, Plan and Plan Some More

Budgeting and Planning Shipping Container Home

If you want to construct a container building while on a tight budget, the first thing you need to do is to develop a good plan.

Without a comprehensive plan, you will be improvising throughout the construction process, hoping for the best. This is an undeniable way to run into serious problems along the way.

There are two key elements to planning.

  1. Establish your budget. Decide how much money you have to spend on constructing your building.
  2. Decide exactly what it is you want to build. How many rooms will your building have? How many stories will it have? Will you be building with new or used shipping containers?

Don’t Make Simple Mistakes

The easiest way to lose money when building your new home is to make simple, uneducated mistakes.

One of the most common mistakes made is removing excessive amounts of steel from the containers. This mistake is sometimes made because the owner has not properly planned the build. Perhaps they don’t know exactly how they want their container home to look, so they experiment or “wing it” as they go and end up cutting too much steel away.

There is nothing worse than wasting materials which you’ve already paid for, especially when you’re working on a tiny budget.

Make sure you read 5 mistakes to avoid when building a shipping container home.

Which Are the Cheapest Containers?

Which Are the Cheapest Containers to Build With

One of the largest expenses when building a shipping container home is actually purchasing the shipping containers.

Choosing the right containers is absolutely crucial to both your budget and the success of your project. The first decision you need to make is whether to buy new or used shipping containers.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to which type to buy, but here are some points to think about.

  1. Only buy used shipping containers if you can see them before the purchase.
  2. Whichever type of container you buy (new or used), make sure that they are all the same brand. Manufacturers use slightly different measurement tolerances when making the containers, so building with different brands of containers can sometimes be problematic.
  3. The most cost effective containers are one trip containers. These are shipping containers which have only been used once. They are not containers which have spent years at sea!

If you want more help when choosing your shipping containers make sure you read which shipping container should I buy?

Choosing Where to Spend Your Money

A great way to help reduce the build cost of your home is to spend most of your money on the things that can’t be altered, and skimp on what can be altered later.

Know Where to Save Money

For example, purchase the very best shipping containers that you can afford. Don’t skimp here. You can’t replace or change the containers once you have constructed your building.

However, if you need to cut costs, consider that fact when choosing fixtures and furnishings, carpet, or paint. Since each of these things can easily be changed or upgraded at a later date, you can delay the purchase of expensive items until a later date.

Another way to conserve money over time is to choose building materials which require low maintenance. A good example of this is using a metal roof. These require very little upkeep once they have been installed.

We want to emphasize that you should not try to save money on the structural components of your shipping container building.

Track Every Dollar Spent

And when we say every dollar, we mean every last one of them!

We often hear stories like this from builders: “During construction, money was just flying out of my bank account from all directions. Soon I realized that I was running out of money.”

With additional costs thrown in by the contractor for a misunderstanding and a last minute kitchen upgrade or other unexpected expenses, you can be left trying to save every cent for the last few months of the build.

Make a plan. Stick to the plan. Record all expenditures to make sure that you are on budget. This way you can identify any areas of concern and make adjustments as needed to stay on track.

You can guarantee that there will be unexpected costs, but if you plan sensibly and stick to the plan, you will be able to build an inexpensive home for yourself.

Salvage Local Materials

Salvage Shipping Containers

A final tip is to try to use salvaged materials. You’d be amazed at the things people give away for free!

As they say “one man’s trash, is another man’s treasure”.

One place to collect salvaged materials is from demolition sites. You can often get materials for free or cheap, providing you transport the materials yourself. To be clear, we are not suggesting that you take materials without permission. Always ask the owner first.

Summary

Choosing to construct your building out of shipping containers can be a great way to save money.

Plan everything thoroughly beforehand to limit issues that come up during construction.

Once you’ve planned, make sure you stick to this plan. Track each dollar you spend against your budget.

To save money, you can purchase one trip containers which are normally a few thousand dollars cheaper than new containers, but offer the same benefits.

Visit local salvage sites to reclaim unused building materials to save even more money.


Do you have any other great ideas for how to keep your costs down when constructing a container building? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments
  1. Karen

    Tom, I am planning a vacation home on the Texas Gulf coast and someone mentioned the idea of building a container home. I still have much research to do to see if this is a viable option, but was wondering how such a home would hold up in a coastal environment and hurricane area? Additionally, how do insurance companies view container homes in terms of risk?

    • Tom

      Containers, like any metal, will rust if left uncoated and exposed to salt spray from a coastal environment. So, it’s important to keep them painted, especially if you buy a used container. Containers are certainly durable for a coastal environment (they are after all designed to hold tens of thousands of pounds and cross oceans without failing), but all cuts and penetrations you make for windows and doors weaken the structure, which is why its best to work with a structural engineer to account for this and add reinforcement. Insurance companies could be a big hurdle, and unfortunately, we don’t have any resources in this area. If you are the first container home they’ve encountered, getting their buy-in will likely take a while and require some documentation that an engineer could help with. If you move further down this road, we’d love to hear more about your project. Best of luck for now, and keep researching!

    • matt

      I live in a container home in Houston and it has held up GREAT to hurricanes and storms lol you will be fine on the gulf coast

  2. Adrian

    Hi there,
    I live in England, in West Sussex actually (an hour south of London) and am really interested in building my family home out of containers. At present I live in a 1800ft house which is quite comfortable for me, my wife and 2 children. What I really want is something twice the size (12 x 40ft containers). Whatever help you can supply plan wise, internet sites, etc, would be really helpful. Also, do you have any contacts in England who you could introduce me to?

    Kind regards

    Adrian

    • Tom

      Adrian,

      That sounds like a great project, and certainly on the upper end of container homes as far as overall size. If you explore the rest of our site, you’ll find many posts related to all facets of designing and building a container home that should be helpful. Whether you choose to do some of the work yourself or hire a contractor, it’s best to get familiar with the construction methodology so you know what to watch out for. Additionally, the book and plans pack we sell has a lot of good information on building a container home, as well as 50 different plans that might be a source of inspiration. As far as contacts in England, we don’t yet have a list of geographic resources, but it’s something we’re looking into adding. Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

  3. Danielle

    Hi Tom,
    I was wondering if you’ve ever heard of anyone turning a container on its side to get more floor space? I was thinking of doing this and removing the roof and adding a 2 foot row of windows along the top edge to extend the ceiling height. Would this be feasible or would it be too unstable? Also, would that be too much added expense compared to just putting two containers together?

    • Tom

      Hi Danielle,

      I personally think it would cost more than simply just using two containers together. Also I think it would have serve structural implications…

      Tom

  4. Bill Smhit

    I was considering the following for a roof, which may be a cheaper option. Purchase a a longer container than base container. cut two sides diagonally and place it on the top.

  5. Tabitha

    Hi,

    I recently purchased a beautiful property in Alaska(we can get down to -50) in the with a view. I am on a very tight budget let’s say under $10,000. Do you that a conex would be a good idea in this environment on this budget? I will be doing most all of the work myself and water will be supplied via a water tank and no plumbing so I’ll be using some type of composting toilet. I’m hoping to get a small kitchen and washer and dryer in it as well. and more of an open floor plan.

    Thank you in Advance,

    Tabitha

  6. Saša

    Hi everyone. I was a DOD contractor living in in Iraq for 4 years, and majority of time I’ve lived in improvised housing units made out of shipping containers. Iraqi desert is very rough during summer times, with usual temperatures of 120-145 degree Fahrenheit. I am not sure what isolation they have used on walls, but roof had no isolation at all. If the AC was on (small window Carrier unit), the room was fine. With out, it was a nightmare. I am no expert, but I assume that with 1 inch of spray foam all around, there should be enough insulation to keep heat or cold out. I am looking forward to building shipping container home myself, because I believe they are great ways to save money and time if planned properly.

  7. Maggie

    Hi Tom, I’m looking to build a container home, do you know of any institution that offers financing? Also, what do you think of using spray -on ceramic coating for insulation and protection from rust?

    • Tom

      Hi Maggie,

      In terms of financing, it really depends. Where you are based?

      Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a lot of good things about spray on ceramic coating so personally I would avoid this.

      Tom

      • Maggie

        Hi, thanks for the input on the ceramic spray. I live in Florida and I’m hoping for a lender who would lend in FL. Thanks again

        • Kara

          Hey Maggie & Tom,

          Ever find out any information on lending in Florida 🙂

  8. Nakita

    Hi, I live next to the water and was advised against containera because of the salt water and the damp hair likely causing too much rust. What sorts of treatments are used for this?

    • Tom

      Hi Nakita,

      Are you referring to treatments to fix salt water damage, or are you asking what’s the best way to prevent this?

      Let me know and I will be able to advise you,

      Tom

  9. Kilee

    Hi there,

    What recommendations can you give on finding an architect and contractor to work with?

    Thank you,

    Kilee

    • Tom

      Hi Kilee,

      We are currently working to compile a list of contractors to add to our resources section however at the moment this isn’t complete.

      However in the mean time the best thing I suggest you do is visit my blog post on ‘what I wish I knew’- within it we mention several major contractors.

      This will help get you started,

      Tom

  10. Riaan

    Hi, I have read wonderful things about container homes. I live in Karoo in South Africa where summer temperature gets in the high forty degree celcius and was wondering if containers could be used here. Could insulating the walls and roof be enough to combat the exterior metal heat?

    And another question, normal homes that are build with bricks and cement do not rust, will this not be a problem with containers?

    • Tom

      Hi Riaan,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      If you use the correct insulation type and enough of it then yes it will be enough to combat the exterior heat.

      Also with regards to the rust, if you maintain the containers properly then rust will not be a problem.

      Tom

  11. stivard

    I have started planning my first container home but How do i fix the studs for the inner wallson to the container?

    • Tom

      Hi Stivard,

      You can use self-tapping screws to fit head and sole plates to the containers. Then just use battens to frame out your container.

      Tom

  12. Shanda Salamaca

    Hi, I just came across your website and am new to the shipping container home concept. I’m curious about the pricing. How much square feet can you get for 50,000.00?
    Thanks-

    • Tom

      Hi Shanda,

      It really depends on the design and what you want the final version to look like. However it should be around 1,000 square feet as a very rough rule of thumb.

      Tom

  13. Jax

    I just purchased some land in the high desert of calif and these tips are gold. The insulation tip was a ” I had no idea,” moment. I’m planning on getting 3 containers to place on my land. I’m taking my time in looking for the right containers due to the extreme heat and high winds. Is the foundation standard? Oh there are no special permits required.

    • Tom

      Hi Jax,

      I’m glad the tips are helping you and getting you on your way.

      Yes, you can just use standard concrete piers for foundations; the only difference would be you should incorporate steel plates on the pads to weld the containers to.

      Tom

      • Gord Josephson

        Another option would be to use screw piles for a foundation

  14. Steve

    Eh Tom, I’m thinking of making our new home out of shipping containers and I want to do the work my self.
    How do you fix the containers together and fix the studded walls inside to the container.

    Thanks

    Steve.

    • Tom

      Hi Steve,

      To connect the containers together you can either weld them or bolt them together. Welding is by far the most common, however if you are planning on moving the containers in time to come then bolting if much more flexible.

      If you’re looking for me detail We cover this with dedicated chapters within our guide.

      Many Thanks,

      Tom

      • Patrick

        If there’s a choice between welding and bolting, but welding is apparently very expensive, why would you go down that route rather than bolts?

        • Tom

          It generally provides a stronger hold 🙂

          Tom

  15. Emma Prollamante

    Love love the idea of Container home and thank you for all the info you’ve posted. I own a lot in a gated resort like property in Dubois, PA, and thinking of having this kind of a home for my retirement in a couple of years. Would you know if anyone has done such a job in that area? Can you recommend?

    • Tom

      Hi Emma,

      Thanks for getting in touch!

      I’m not particularly familiar with that area, but if you send me an email, I will see if I can find some more information for you.

      Tom

  16. Ali

    Hi,
    I love this project but i have no idea about all the component of this project and how can i paint it. I would love to know every thing about it
    thanks.

    • Tom

      Hi Ali,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      We have just published an article called ‘getting started’ and I think this will really help you. Give it a read and let me know if you have any questions,

      Tom

      • Nando rueda

        Hi Tom
        I asked about permission build containers homes in city Lehigh Acres Florida(Lee county)
        They answer me
        “Are required to be designed to the current Florida Building Code (Foundation thru roof) and be signed and sealed by a Design Professional who is registered in the State of Florida. Container homes cannot look like a container for zoning purposes”
        Is not a clear answer for me if it is allowed or not?
        Whath do you think Tom ?

        • Tom

          It does sound like they are allowed, but with two caveats. The first one is common for most municipalities and is just to ensure that the home is built safely and securely to code. That is done by having the design stamped by a licensed engineer in your state. The second caveat is not as common but is related solely to aesthetics. They want you to clad the container with another material to disguise the fact that it is a metal shipping container and make it appear to be more traditional construction. It will still be a container underneath, but wood, stucco, or other materials will need to be used on the exterior to match the character of the neighborhood.

  17. Shrinath Rao

    Hi Tom,
    I was wondering if the cost you mentioned of $ 50,000 for a home. What was the Square footage of the house. Did it include the cost of land [If so, how much?]. Do all states allow this kind of construction? Does the cost include, all the permits and licenses, registration and the like. I am very much interested in building, at $ 50,000, if the square footage is 1280 with a small yard and a 1 car garage – I would be very happy. My state is Michigan.
    Thanks and Best Regards,
    Rao.

    • Tom

      Hi Rao,

      The home was 1,075 square foot and the total figure did not include the cost of the land.

      It really depends on the state where you live and their local zoning laws- however container homes are becoming much more popular now which is with building permit approvals.

      Hope this helps,

      Tom

      • Brian

        Hi Tom,

        Is there anyway to learn more about this specific design/build? Looking to invest in/build my first home, and as a young professional, I’d like to do it in a way that leaves me not completely burdened with debt. This seems like a very viable option. Thanks so much!

        Brian

        • Tom

          Absolutely Brian.

          If you look on our blog, we regularly feature DIY container home builds and break them down in terms of pricing.

          Tom

  18. Handzie galllant

    I was wondering what about using metal studs instead of wood to frame out the home…be cause I don’t want to have to deal with termites later down the road.

    • Tom

      Hi Handzie,

      Yes you can certainly use metal studs instead- the only thing is they tend to cost a bit more money than wood…

      Tom

  19. Ivan

    Tom, I’m taking your advice and beginning with a plan. How I insulate will affect the overall design….form follows function I guess. I really love the look of the raw container. Something like the container of Hope by Garcia. If I use spray foam insulation on the inside, will the roof hold up to the elements or do you recommend building a secondary roof on top of the container to both add some slope and to add longevity to the container?

    • Tom

      Hi Ivan,

      You can just spray foam the inside and not add an additional roof, but this isn’t the route I’d go down.

      I would definitely recommend building a ‘secondary’ roof.

      Tom

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