Weird and Wonderful Real-Estate Ep 3 – Shipping Container Homes.

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I am absolutely in love with learning and sharing all things real estate. I’m an agent for Jacaranda Real Estate In Harare, Zimbabwe. This blog will be the ultimate resource for all things real estate so subscribe and stay tuned.

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If there was ever a case for adult Legos, where you could literally stack block like stuctures to make something you could live in; it would come in the form of the modern use of shipping containers.

These large metal rectangular boxes that were fully created to safely transport large amounts of goods  across vast distances have become the new target for modern innovative home design.

With thier rising popularity on the DIY scene and their almost unlimited cutomisation offers; Is it any wonder, why they would feature on this episode of weird and wonderful real estate?

Let’s begin…

What Are Shipping Container Homers?

Shipping container homes, like tiny homes; are exactly as their name states – homes made out of new or previously used shipping containers that you would otherwise find in port harbors, trains, and trucks.

The home-style of shipping container homes is usually focused around stacking and combining shipping containers to other shipping containers in a Lego-like manner or to more traditional construction structures to make a dully habitable, traditional home replacement.

The History Of Shipping Container Homes.

If I wanted to trace back the origins of shipping container homes, I could begin with the man who revolutionized the transport industry as a whole by creating shipping containers themselves – A Mr. Malcolm McLean.

But that would probably be an inaccurate representation of why we have shipping containers today because I don’t think this transport entrepreneur would have thought that one day, the invention he made to avoid hefty road fines would be used to construct homes.

The more accurate origin of the shipping container home concept would come from the occurrence of the following 2 circumstances:

  1. Over importing – The problem of freight bulk shipping of shipping containers.
  2. Social trends – The rise of minimalism, eco-friendliness, and living off the grid.

1. Over importing – The problem of freight bulk shipping of shipping containers.

As I’ll further cover bellow, the shipping container model is not equally financially viable for everyone.

The number one factor as to why people started to consider imaginative and genius ways to make use of tiny homes aside from their original use of transporting goods was the result of so many of them just lying around neglected and forgotten in ship ports in many western companies.

The concept of the shipping container model was likely intended to be a continuous cycle by nature. Whereby an importing country would order a large supply of goods the needed to be shipped in containers overfreight or plane and pay for the goods and the container.

This country would then export, at a later date; export goods back to that country or another country and charge for the goods and the container as well; thus creating a cycle of continuous movement of the shipping containers.

*It would often be more costly and inefficient to bring back empty shipping containers for the country of origin than to just make new ones or buy the ones being brought in by other countries exporting.

This, however; was not the case, and countries such that imported more than they exported through shipping containers (Like the US and South Africa) would end up with an enormous surplus of shipping containers just lying idle, taking up space, and rotting away.


2. Social trends – The rise of minimalism, eco-friendliness, and living off the grid.

The aforementioned above 3 trends have undeniably and unexpectedly disrupted the traditional real estate market and led to the rise of a more nomadic lifestyle, less attachment to property – less need for large spaces, and most disruptive of all – opportunity.

The longevity of the above 3 trends resulted in many individuals and companies experimenting with the status quo of real estate to create less expensive smaller home designs that among many things, led to the idea of using shipping containers as the base template for home construction.

By their natural design, shipping containers were relatively mobile, provided a small enclosed home-like structure and most important of all; they were cheap – Ports were praying for people to take them off their hands and give them more space to work with.

And so, through an oversupply of containers, social trends influencing people’s thoughts on real estate as it is today, and a little human ingenuity; the rise of shipping container homes had begun.

Now, are they a good idea?

How Do Shipping Container Homes Work?

Considerations – What You Should Know About Shipping Container Homes.

The following are 5 important considerations that any prospecting potential shipping container homeowner should consider before diving headfirst into ordering one:

*I will further explain each point below this list.

  1. Are shipping container homes cheaper?
  2. Conversion Process – Don’t shipping container homes get hot? And what was it used for before this?
  3. Are shipping container homes legal?
  4. Construction – DIY or Professionally done?
  5. Mobility and space.

1. Are shipping container homes cheaper?

Shipping container homes, from purchase to the home conversion will almost always – by all facets be cheaper than building a traditional home of similar provisions. This, however, is half a question to a larger answer.

Just because shipping container homes are cheaper than traditional homes, does mean they’re worth their cost. As I previously mentioned above, when I was talking about why shipping container homes took off; the main point was the oversupply of imported shipping containers.

The oversupply, coupled with the fact that no one; especially the ports or bays that had to store them; had any use for them – or wanted them. This was why, in such countries; they were sold at such a discount – because their owners didn’t want them.

If you live in a country that exports more than it imports or generally just doesn’t have a large stock of unwanted shipping containers; they are going to be priced at a significantly higher cost or may not even be available without importing them in.

The more hurdles you need to go through to get the container and convert it into a home, the more expensive it will be and likely the less worth it, will be; especially when compared to a tiny house or prefabricated home alternatives.

2. Conversion Process – Don’t shipping container homes get hot? And what was it used for before this?

Shipping containers were not built, designed, or originally intended to be homes for people. One of the most direct detrimental results of making them into houses is the realization that metal does not make a good exterior for a home.

Because metal is such an excellent conductor of the elements, unless costly modifications are made, the shipping container home essentially becomes a desert environment where it can get dangerously hot when exposed to sunlight, dangerously cold during the evening and annoyingly wet in the middle of all that as condensation takes effect.

Just insulate it, I hear you say but it’s not that easy. Insulation would take care of the uncontrollable hot and cold temperature changes for you but it doesn’t take care of the condensation that would happen between the insulation and exterior metal which can lead to the development of hazardous mold in your home.

Speaking of hazardous, one important question that’s often neglected by shipping container enthusiasts is knowing just what exactly the shipping container was previously used for, and more importantly, what was used on it.

It’s not rare for shipping containers to be exposed to many potentially hazardous chemicals and paints to allow them to survive the elements on their voyage and to keep the pests at bay.

It is very important to know about the shipping container you want to use as a home on a level deeper than picking up the one that hasn’t been damaged the most during travels.

3. Are shipping container homes legal?

As with many new forms of minimalist and mobile home real estate. The law is one of the first hurdles that need to be faced to get development going.

It rarely ever a case of the structure being outright illegal and more a case of the government doesn’t know how to regulate it to be habitable. It is after all, almost like adult Legos or Jenga; except with human lives at risk.

If you are planning to make use of shipping containers for home use within city zoning areas; you will need government approval first.

4. Construction – DIY or professionally done?

In their base form, shipping containers are pretty secure and stable; they are shipped after going through rigorous tests that guarantee them being able to be stacked 8 stories high fully loaded.

This often reasonably provides DIY enthusiasts the idea that they can convert a shipping container into a shipping container home; all on their own. And for the most part, they would be right.

Countless individuals have taken up the challenge and produced seemingly habitable and sturdy homes with their own two hands; which when coupled with the fact that you can build as you go from room (shipping container) to room (shipping container) have made shipping container homes synonymous with DIY.  

Something that needs to consider, is this; shipping containers are pretty sturdy as shipping containers but once you start cutting holes in them or stacking them in a non-uniform manner; that sturdiness becomes significantly more questionable because their designed structural integrity becomes compromised.

It’s can’t be denied that beautiful and currently functional shipping container homes have been designed through DIY tactics but because shipping container homes are relatively new, we don’t know just how secure these designs are in the long-run

If you want a more complex design for your shipping container home, having an experienced architect guiding your hand on what you should pay attention to or having them do it for you may be well worth the cost.

5. Mobility and space.

If you’ve seen one shipping container, you’ve probably seen them all. The uniformity in dimensions of most shipping containers was done intentionally; to make it universally far less complicated to transport.

As a plus, this uniformity makes it very convenient and simple to move shipping containers around because most large-scale transport options are inherently designed to be able to transport cargo of the shipping containers’ dimensions.

As a negative thought, these dimensions are usually designed to prioritize being long over being wide or high when it comes to increasing space and almost all shipping containers will be under 2.5m in height and 2.5m in width.

This, when accompanied by having to put in a means of internal insulation; can lead to a very uncomfortable spacing arrangement. That is unless you cut out portions of the shipping container to connect it to others and make it higher and wider but then you’d be dealing with my considerations of point 4; for structural integrity.     

Pros and Cons Of Shipping Container Homes.



Pros Of Shipping Container Homes. Cons Of Shipping Container Homes.
Cheaper and faster construction. Eco-friendly at a cost
Mobile. Questionable history and potential health hazard.
Durable and long-lasting. Questionable legality and permits.
Eco-friendly – there are tons of these things lying around. Climate control challenge.
Adaptable and Flexible (module home). Claustrophobia and Noise.
Construction DIY. Not really completely DIY friendly – Construction Expertise.

Pros Of Shipping Container Homes.


1. Cheaper and faster construction.

If you’re based in a location where shipping containers are oversupplied and easily available such as at ports, harbors, or plane bays; you can almost always expect to get them at a bargain deal because they are more often than not a hindrance on the site.

Even if you had to import or pay for a shipping container from a less than an ideal location; the cost to purchase and convert it to be habitable would be far greater than what would be needed to construct a home.

As well, it should be mentioned that most shipping container homes are not placed on a fixed foundation and already come pre-built in a way; the time needed to apply the necessary renovations to make the structure habitable is far less than what would be needed to construct a home.

2. Mobile.

Though this becomes less viable as the design and structure of shipping container home become more connected and intricate; in their base form and when designed with mobility in mind, shipping containers are highly mobile.

Because their original design is optimized for road transportation on large hauling trucks, there are fewer restrictions and laws enforced to effectively transport shipping container homes that other mobile properties.

3. Durable and long-lasting.

In their base form, shipping containers are designed to take a lot of punishment from handling large amounts of weight inside them, being repeatedly moved and shifted by cranes, being stacked, and having large amounts of weight on top of them and exposure to extreme elements at sea.

When it comes to their durability, in their base states they would be more than legally viable. When the originally structural integrity of the shipping container starts getting tampered with; the durability becomes compromised.

   In such cases, reinforcing the structure needs to be done correctly lest you risk making the structure highly unsafe.

4. Eco-friendly – there are tons of these things lying around.

This is another subjective case; in locations where shipping containers are oversupplied, recycling the structures for home use is incredibly eco-friendly as it can involve the recycling of steel up to 4tons.

This figure becomes more obscure when factoring in the necessary steel needed to repair the shipping container if it was damaged or to design it and make it habitable.

This will rarely ever fully negate the sustainability contribution of reusing the structure. If you were purchasing a new shipping container to make a home from, it would not be sustainable.

5. Adaptable and Flexible (module home).

Shipping containers are textbook examples of modular homes in that they are convenient to customize. As time goes on, you can add extra rooms on the ground floor of the property by laying other containers next to the current ones.

And you can add height or extra floors to the home by stacking the shipping containers on top of each other. The modular system is only limited by your imagination and your builders’ and architects’ skills

6. Construction DIY.

Because of the base simplicity, durability, and structural integrity of each shipping container; they are one of the easiest means of DIYing a home. Easiest does not mean easy, it means accessible for those dedicated enough to learn the basics and not overestimate their skills for complex constructions.

It’s never a bad idea to have a professional nearby.

Cons Of Shipping Container Homes.


1. Eco-friendly at a cost.

As I mentioned above, the eco-friendly status of shipping containers is a very subjective matter. For individuals located in areas where shipping containers are not readily and conveniently available, the cost of constructing one could fully negate the sustainability factor.

When you consider the fuel burned to transport the large and heavy structure + the additional materials that would be needed to make it habitable; it may be less sustainable than other means of home development.

Remember, sustainability is usually optimized by what is local and what is renewable which in many countries can be specific trees and bricks.

2. Questionable history and potential health hazard.

I mentioned above how shipping containers are often dressed in multiple potentially hazardous materials and chemicals to make them voyage ready. This adds a layer of risk when buyers salvaging a pre-used shipping container.

This has led to some states and countries only making it legal to use verifiable “single-use” shipping containers to ensure that individuals do not expose themselves and others to factors that can negatively affect their health.

If you are purchasing a shipping container in a state that has no such laws and you can freely hunt for shipping containers, it would be wise to take the necessary precautionary steps to ensure you know what it was used for before or to take steps to remove traces of harmful chemicals.

3. Questionable legality and permits.

Because shipping container homes are a relatively new way of housing, they are not universally accepted, understood, or regulated. It would be a bad idea to assume that you understand or do not need to reference your specific states’ ruling on the matter.

*Unless you don’t mind hefty fines and the legal system’s wrath.

4. Climate control challenge.

In their base form, shipping containers are just metal boxes, and metal boxes are terrible with regulating temperatures and will be severely affected by hot and cold climates.

That is unless you effectively insulate the structure which aside from being expensive can risk mold development if the insulation is internal or risk looking off; if external.

5. Claustrophobia and Noise.

Shipping containers were not designed with the most ideal-for-living specifications in mind and because of their naturally small enclosed design (which only gets smaller if internal insulation is applied); it can lead to a very claustrophobic structure that can be difficult for some to live in.

Adding to the negative living experience is the fact that the metal structure amplifies and any sounds that hit it – Have you ever heard the sounds of heavy rains on metal sheets? Now imagine your entire home being that metal sheet.

6. Not really completely DIY friendly – Construction Expertise.

There are indeed many harder projects that DIYing a shipping container into a home but it is also true that DIYing a shipping container home is one such project that directly influences your life and needs to be done properly.

Cutting holes, installing electrical wiring, and plumbing are all areas that can lead to disaster if not done well. It can often be cheaper to hire a professional to do these tasks and avoid the financial and livelihood ramifications that can arise from doing the job incorrectly

Who Are Shipping Container Homes For?

Because of the overall adaptability and versatility of shipping container homes, they can be a viable opportunity for any type of experimental homeowner. Shipping containers can be hybrid built with traditional home building methods and materials for some incredible results.

From tiny home development to much larger constructions; shipping containers can be customized to fit any requirements and desires.

The main issues will stem from their legality and making sure you or your home builder are well aware of the specific nuances that need to be considered in the construction of the shipping container home.

Concluding Thoughts – Are Shipping Containers A Good Home Idea?


Of all the modern adaptations and additions to the world of  real estate, I feel pretty certain in saying that shipping container homes are going to be the most widely accepted.

Sure, it’s a bit weird but it’s somehow werid in a familiar way; just how different is storing goods from stroing people anyway?

Their ability to allow people to scale both up and down offers a level of freedom and flexibility not easily provided by other modern minimalist designs such as tiny homes or mobile homes and for that reason, I feel people are more likely to give them a chance. 

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I am absolutely in love with learning and sharing all things real estate. I’m an agent for Jacaranda Real Estate In Harare, Zimbabwe. This blog will be the ultimate resource for all things real estate so subscribe and stay tuned.