Mel is a Canadian expat living on the beautiful island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras, but more importantly for us at Discover Containers, she’s the owner of several container home rentals. She’s well aware of the dynamics of short term rentals, given that she also owns a hostel for visitors to the Carribean island she’s called home for years. She’s supplemented her hostel business with no-frills container home rentals for visitors who want a more private experience. Read on to find out how someone who was initially a skeptic came to own three container homes!
Let me set the stage. I had started up a small hostel, and one day learned that my neighbor was selling her property. Among other things, her property included a shipping container that had already been converted into a basic apartment. I had previously seen her drag the container up to her place, and my immediate thought was,”I don’t want that.” I asked her if I could buy just the land and her house, but she said she was selling everything together. However, after I took a look inside the 40 ft container, I was amazed with how well it worked as an apartment!
I bought her property, container and all, and expanded my hostel to that land as well. After I made a few small upgrades, I began using the container apartment as one of my rentals. Once I had one container apartment, I wanted to add more! I purchased a 20 foot container a couple of years later and added a bedroom and bathroom. A year after that, I purchased a second 20 foot container and set it up the same way.
The other buildings on my property are constructed with other materials, but the containers work really well on the back corner of the land. Their narrow design has made it possible to have a central area with a green space and a patio, giving some separation and privacy between the various accommodations.
I designed the layout for the two 20 ft containers, and had my handyman do the renovating. Both containers were in slightly rough shape, but I wanted to provide a simple yet nice looking interior. We put in sheetrock and insulation on all the walls and ceiling, but used 2in x 2in wooden studs (instead of 2x4s) given the narrow dimensions of the containers.
The most difficult part of the projects was getting the containers into position since we already had existing buildings in place. Luckily another neighbour allowed us to go through his property and we used a lot of careful maneuvering with a truck and backhoe in order to position the containers. In case you’re wondering, there are no cranes available on our island, and this would have probably added too much to the cost anyway.
The 40 foot container was already set up as a one-bedroom apartment when I purchased it, so I didn’t really have any input on the design. As previously mentioned, I’ve done a few improvements to it like tiling the floors and fixing up the kitchen. If I were to have built it myself, I would have done things a bit differently and incorporated two bedrooms and a smaller bathroom.
With the 20 foot containers, I had the freedom to design them exactly how I wanted. They each have a bedroom with a desk, closet, bathroom, and outside porch. Positioning of the windows/sliding glass door was important to me. I wanted to ensure that it was easy to get in without a bed blocking your movement and to have the window and glass door opposite each other for air flow.
I opted to have a double bed at one end of each container (a queen bed was too wide and made the space seem too tight) with a five foot long sliding glass door beside it. The sliding doors start two feet from the wall and open on the far end so that the you can still pass by the bed when you open the door. At the opposite end of each 2o foot container is the bathroom. The doorway to each bathroom forms a little hall with a five foot wide nook where the closet and desk are found.
I have guests that stay anywhere between one night and a few months, since many of them do dive courses here. I liked the idea of having a little desk space for them, as well as a bit of room for them to put away clothes using the shelf with hanging rod. I opted not to have a kitchenette as our hostel has a communal kitchen and a little restaurant. There are a few other rental units on site, like the 40 ft container, that do offer a full private kitchen if that is something they need.
However, if someone wanted to have a design similar to mine but with a food preparation area, I think that option could be accomodated. Instead of the desk, you could put a mini-fridge underneath and a coffeemaker plus hotplate/toaster on top, with a little cabinet for essentials.
As my property already had electric and water, and was already set up as a hostel business, some steps were already complete. It took awhile to find the containers at a price that I felt was reasonable, so it was a year between the first 20 foot container and the second one.
For the first 20 foot container, I did construct a new septic tank, as I didn’t think my existing septics were big enough to handle the additional toilets from the new units. I opted for a cement, two-phase septic tank which is under the first 20 foot container, and forms part of its base (the other end of the container is balanced on a couple of concrete foot pads).
Renovating the containers themselves took around a couple of months each with 1-2 guys working on them almost full-time. Steps included: building the concrete pads to set them on, cutting out the holes where the windows would be, mounting metal roofing with overhang, patching any holes and straightening out a few areas where the metal was dented, pouring cement on the floor in order to tile, installing the interior studs, adding electrical wiring, plumbing, insulation and sheetrock, pasting/painting the sheetrock, tiling the shower walls and all floors, installing windows and doors, building the desk/closet area, constructing the entry porch, and finally removing the exterior rust and painting.
The total price for each 20 ft container apartment was $7,600, not including furnishings, A/C unit, the concrete foot pads to sit it on, or the septic system. If I break that $7600 down into line items, it looks like this:
- $1,500 for each 20 foot container
- $500 to move each container from the place of purchase to my property (backhoe and truck rental)
- $3400 in building materials and supplies (including tiles, lumber for studs, closet and porch, roofing, wiring, fixtures, plumbing accessories, sheetrock, insulation, cement for flooring)
- $2200 in labor costs
Overall, this probably wasn’t too much of a savings over just constructing a similar size room with cement board or wood siding, but it’s got a fun, novel appeal, and is great recycling!
I have a wide variety of guests from all over the world that stay with me, from 18 years old to 70 something. Some stay just a night or two while others stay a few months. There have been a few guests specifically looking for the container experience, but most don’t realize that they’re going to be staying in a container until they see it.
Occasionally, guests are a little worried that it will be really hot inside the containers (we live in the tropics, afterall). However, once they step inside, they realize it’s a very comfortable temperature. They are also usually surprised to find that they don’t look at all like a shipping container inside. Some guests that are staying in our other hostel accommodations are curious and like to take a look inside the containers when they are not occupied.
I rent the containers through my hostel website, though I also have them listed on Airbnb and Booking.com. I named the 40 foot one the ‘cando’, because it’s like a condo, except made out of metal, so a ‘can’. When I added the two 20 ft containers, we named them ‘cando juniors’. The containers rent with about the same frequency as my other rentals and don’t really have any significant booking advantage or disadvantage.
I think containers make a great ‘shell’ to use for creating a rental accommodation. They offer a diverse set of layout options, particularly if you’re combining several containers. Depending on the condition of the container and the price you get it for, they can sometimes be a very cost-advantageous way of building.
Our thanks to Mel for sharing her three shipping container homes with us. What do you think about how she’s utilized container homes on her island retreat?