Figuring out how to find and purchase shipping containers is a unique challenge, even if you already know what kind of containers you want. For first-time buyers, the difficulty is only magnified. Prices are often guarded and hard to determine without some extra legwork, and there many different kinds of sellers with their own pros and cons. The market is so fragmented with thousands of dealers, distributors, resellers, and other middlemen in the process, you may not know how or where to even begin.
We’re assuming you’ve already decided on the type of container to buy, so we won’t discuss that here. If you’re not sure what size container you need, our Container Types and Dimensions article goes over all the options, including some of the less-common choices you may run across. And How to Choose to Right Shipping Container will help you understand the various conditions and grades that containers are available in (Hint: there are far more choices than just ‘new’ and ‘used’), as well as how to do your own inspection. We consider these articles mandatory pre-reading, so start with them first!
Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know so you can find and purchase your containers and get started on your project.
Knowing what you want and figuring out how and where to actually get it are very different things. There are a number of different options for purchasing containers depending on your location and preferences. Based on what you learned in the pre-reading above, you should be clear on the size, type, and condition of the container you’re looking for. You should also have a rough idea of the cost. Now, it’s time to find it!
Most business-to-consumer purchases (and even consumer-to-consumer purchases) are moving to the online realm. Whether you actually complete your transaction online or just locate the company online, the internet is likely to play an important part in your search. Therefore, we’ll focus our efforts on online sources, though there are limited opportunities to find a container for sale offline that we’ll mention at the end of the article.
Starting your search online enables you to have access to a wider variety of inventory than you would normally find with a local company, and you don’t even have to leave your house. However, depending on where you purchase your container from, you may give up the ability to conduct a pre-purchase inspection, so you need to find a company you can trust and that rates the conditions of their containers with integrity.
A large number of our readers are located in the United States, and although shipping containers are a global commodity, there are systems in place in some countries that make sourcing containers a bit easier than in others. Therefore, we’ll start our discussion with US-based choices then follow that up with the options accessible to those in the rest of the world.
If you’re located in the United States, our recommendation is simple: Visit BoxHub
BoxHub lets you search for container inventory nationwide, get live pricing, and complete your purchase online. They even provide a money-back guarantee if you aren’t happy with your container purchase. Their team works directly with the major shipping lines and container companies and helps those big players bypass the layers of middlemen and sell directly to individuals. Through economies of scale, BoxHub is able to deliver lower pricing than most other alternatives, and their website is completely open about their prices, unlike other container sellers that sometimes want you to call or fill out a form before you get any pricing information. BoxHub will also help you coordinate delivery with roll-off/tilt-bed trailers at cost. We think you’ll agree that it’s a great platform.Visit BoxHub Now!
In the age of Amazon and other sophisticated online sellers, it’s starting to make less and less sense to buy containers with antiquated systems when a modern alternative like this exists that is quick and easy. The fact that BoxHub is likely to save you money is just an added benefit. Note: Discover Containers has a partnership with BoxHub and receives a small bonus when you complete a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
If you live in the United States and for some reason aren’t able to find what you’re looking for with BoxHub, there are a number of companies a bit higher up the food chain than your local dealer and who have regional relationships and networks. You should be able to find some of these online and they may be able to help you search a wider area and find the right container for you, although you may give up some ease of use. Additionally, the more parties that are involved in the transaction, the less likely you are to get a good deal on price.
Google searches like this are usually fruitful:
"shipping container" + Miami
Just use your city or town in place of Miami. Trying terms like “buy shipping container” or “shipping container dealer” along with the city may provide additional results. You can also try the name of nearest large city if you’re in a more rural area.
Craigslist is another good way to find local dealers in addition to regular people and businesses who own containers and no longer need them. There are differences of opinion on which Craigslist sub-category is best suited for shipping containers (is it ‘farm+garden’, ‘general’, ‘trailers’, etc. For this reason, we recommend searching in the parent ‘For Sale’ category to get the largest number of results. You can also try searching in nearby cities that have their own Craigslist site as well. Tools like Search Tempest make it easy to search multiple Craigslist cities within a given radius at one time.
If you’re purchasing from a company or individual that isn’t a container dealer, you’ll need to go visit the container in person to determine its condition. You’ll also probably have to arrange the logistics of pickup and delivery of the container separately.
If you are based outside the US, there are still plenty of ways to track down a shipping container near you. As far as we know, basically every country in the world has access to shipping containers. Most countries have several intermodal ports, including seaports and land-based container terminals.
To find seaports, the Sea Rate website is an amazing tool. You can search by country and see hundreds of ports, with contact information for each along with very detailed information about the size and capacity of the port. From there, try reaching out to the port to ask about companies that work with the port and sell excess containers.
While seaports will probably have the most container options, if you’re far from the coast or in a land-locked country, land ports are still good options. Countries with larger ports will have container dealers just like the US, and the same technique for Google searching mentioned above can also work internationally.
Craigslist works in some international countries, so that technique may be effective as well. Gumtree is a similar alternative that is popular in many Commonwealth countries like the UK, South Africa, Australia, and others. Additionally, many countries have similar online classified ads sites that cater specifically to residents of that country or region. So, seek out these websites and see what containers are available. The recommendations and cautions we shared above for Craiglist in the United States still apply here.
With all of these resources, we recommend having as broad a search as possible. If you end up with too many results, you can start to narrow things down by specifying a more detailed description of the location, size or condition of the containers you need.
If you’re looking for new, one-trip containers, you probably already know that the overwhelming majority of them are made in Asia, and most of those are from China. Sites like Alibaba enable you to get in touch with Chinese manufacturers to purchase these containers directly. The purchase won’t be as simple as purchasing a container from your own country, as you’ll have to coordinate the transportation, any inspections and customs paperwork, etc. A container dealer in your home country may also be able to help coordinate the purchase of new containers using their industry relationships.
There are actually a lot of containers just sitting around behind businesses and homes that infrequently used or just forgotten about. They may be empty or full of long-forgotten materials, and getting rid of them usually isn’t a high priority activity for busy individuals. However, if you notice one and approach the owner, they very well might be excited about the prospect of getting some money AND cleaning up their storage yard. So keep your eyes open when you’re driving around and if you notice some neglected containers, you may be able to make a deal!
You can also look for personal referrals from people you know or meet that work in the shipping, transportation, and logistics industry. They may know other dealers or just companies that use containers in their business and likely have excess units. If one dealer can’t help you, ask if they know any of their nearby peers that might have what you need.
Just like with buying a car, the time to consider payment options for your container is before you actually want to purchase. Consider the choices available now so you can make a smart decision when it’s time to buy.
If you have the money on-hand, most people choose to do a self-funded purchase. It removes some of the steps for things like approvals and makes for a more hassle-free transaction. However, if you don’t have the necessary capital to pay for your entire build out of pocket, containers are one of the easiest parts of the build to finance. So saving the money in your bank account for other expenses might make sense in some cases.
This option is pretty self-explanatory, just hand over cash to the seller. This probably isn’t going to be a viable option for an internet purchase, but may work with local container dealers. Most sellers are unlikely to do a full cash-on-delivery (COD) payment, though they may do a partial COD after you place a deposit. If your seller is of the unscrupulous type, or you purchase from an individual, a cash purchase doesn’t leave you much recourse if something goes wrong. There is also the issue of personal security that comes with carrying several thousand dollars in cash around.
An electronic bank transfer (such as a wire transfer) or mailed check is similar to cash, except you can do the transfer from afar which makes this option more applicable for online purchases. The same risk as with cash about recourse options still exists.
As mentioned above, financing the purchase of your shipping container with some kind of loan may be a good idea, depending on the overall state of your personal finances and project budget and timeline.
The easiest financing option to use is a credit card. Chances are you already have a card, which means there is no approval process unlike with the other financing options. Credit cards can have some of the highest interest rates, but that’s not always the case. Many credit cards offer an introductory 0% interest rate as a perk of signing up, which can be a great option if you can pay the balance off before the rate goes back to normal.
Credit cards also give you some protection in the case that something is wrong with the container and the seller isn’t responsive in fixing the issue. You’ll have to read the fine print on your specific credit card’s terms for things like ‘extended warranty’ and ‘purchase protection’ for more details.
You always have the option of paying off your credit card balance at the end of the month, which means you’ll get a very short-term loan (the difference between the purchase date and the due date of your credit card bill), but you’ll avoid having to even think about the interest charges.
A lot of sellers are starting to offer financing options to buyers. Often these are provided by 3rd party companies that offer “financing as a service” to different businesses, but the process may be branded as if the seller does the financing themselves. Either way, there should be a fairly straightforward approval process here, but make sure you’re clear on interest charges, late fees, and terms. You’re unlikely to have much buyer protection compared to what you get with a credit card.
The last loan option we’ll discuss is bank financing. Shipping containers are commoditized and thus their value is fairly easily known. In addition, they are resilient and don’t quickly depreciate or get damaged in normal usage. For these reasons, the can serve as a good form of collateral for a bank loan. Or, your bank may offer an unsecured loan that doesn’t factor in the value of the containers but instead is based on the health of your own personal finances. Either way, bank financing can be useful, but the terms may vary wildly between banks, and a local bank is more likely to offer a reasonable package compared to one of the national or international chains.
You may be thinking, “It’s just a metal box, why does it matter who I buy it from?” However, there are definitely a few points to keep in mind that separate various sellers from each other.
In many transactions, there is something called knowledge asymmetry: The seller often knows more about what they are selling than the buyer. You can reduce the size of this knowledge gap with education (this website is an excellent resource!), but it can be difficult to completely eliminate it. Things like stolen containers, low-quality repairs, bait-and-switch selling, etc. are possibilities you have to consider. So finding a seller that you trust is important.
Evaluating trustworthiness can be difficult, but there are a few things to look at. First is membership in industry organizations like the Container Dealer’s Association, the Intermodal Association of North America, the National Portable Storage Association, and others depending on your country of residence. While membership requirements in these groups may be lax and thus not necessarily indicative of meeting any stringent requirements, membership does show a bit of good faith on the part of the seller.
The other option is gaining the opinion of other purchasers. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau can be a good start, and checking with Yelp, Google Reviews, and similar sites can give an indication as well (there may be similar review sites that are relevant to your specific country or region). Know that as with all things, people are more likely to spend the time leaving a bad review than a good one, so a few bad reviews may just be indicative of difficult customers and not necessarily a bad company. If possible, speaking with people in your area that have made container purchases in the past is a better way of getting reviews you can trust.
One last note related to trust is the verification of your purchase. After you’ve agreed on the price of the specific container unit(s) you want, make sure you record the container’s BIC code and CSC plate information. When your containers are delivered, make sure the numbers match and that you’re getting the same container(s) as the ones you picked out.
Depending on the condition of the container you purchase, it may come with a warranty. A warranty is only as good as the company behind it, so the trust element discussed in the above section is important. For instance, if a person selling you something out of the trunk of their car offers you a “lifetime warranty”, you know that’s probably not something you’ll ever be able to use.
Some sellers may offer extended warranties for an additional fee, though this isn’t especially common and we wouldn’t recommend it in most circumstances. If you’re planning to use your container for a house-build, any warranty is likely to be invalidated anyway due to the modifications you’ll make.
If you need to make a warranty claim on a damaged container or return a container you ended up not needing, you need to understand the process and fees involved. Who pays for the shipment back to the dealer, and how is it coordinated? Will there be a restocking fee or other charges? Get clarity on these items before completing your transaction in the unlikely event that you need to send your container back to where you bought it.
If you have a need for more than one container (as container home builders often do), we recommend purchasing all of your containers from the same seller instead of piecemealing them out between different sellers. On top of making your record keeping that much easier, it also gives you the option to negotiate a volume discount.
Volume discounts may be openly disclosed by your seller, or they may be something you have to negotiate as part of the purchase. Either way, they are important to consider as part of the total price.
In understanding volume pricing, you need to know two things about the business of marketing:
For our purposes here, you don’t need to know these exact numbers, but just understand that these measures do exist even though they are different for every company. If you purchase several times more containers than the average customer, you save the company the CAC that would have otherwise spent for those additional customers. In return, it’s reasonable for the company to share some of that saved expense with you as a volume discount. Given that containers are commoditized and don’t have a lot of profit build into each sale, you shouldn’t expect huge savings, but it is something worth bringing up and discussing. If you’re a hard-nosed negotiator, you may be able to get a bit more savings on your purchase than the originally quoted price.
When it comes to companies trying to sell you things, there are regular retailers and then there are value-added retailers. Think about buying a new television, as an example. Company A just sells it to you, and that’s it. Company B sells it to you, but they also will deliver it, install it, help you set it up, and haul off your old one. You’re obviously going to pay for Company B’s additional services (whether directly or indirectly), but the services may still be worth having.
For shipping container sellers, there are a few different things they can offer you. The first is delivery & offloading, which we discuss below in the next section. Other options include things like custom painting, installation of lockboxes, etc. Some seller may even do large-scale custom modifications include window and door frame installation, insulation, etc.
Whether it makes sense for you to pay the seller to do these things, paying a contractor to do them later, or just do them yourself is a question only you can answer. But understand that different sellers have different capabilities for performing these value-added services, so factor that into your decision as you think about where to purchase your container.
While we’ve discussed some of the different ways your container can be delivered and offloaded, a separate point is figuring out who can actually do the work for you. Larger dealers may have the necessary equipment (like tilt-bed trailers, heavy forklifts, or even cranes) in-house, which can often lead to cost-savings and quicker delivery times. If they sub-out this work, make sure you have clarity on who has the custody and responsibility of the container during transit and offloading, so you don’t end up with multiple companies pointing fingers at each other if something goes wrong.
Another factor to consider is timeliness. As an example, if the seller only has two container trailers and you ordered ten containers, how many days will it take to get everything delivered as they deal with back and forth transit times plus competing deliveries for other customers? Obviously, a business operates in a dynamic environment, and the seller doesn’t know how many orders they’ll get on any particular day, nor what could happen with things like weather and equipment breakdowns. But the seller can shed light on how they’ll execute your delivery and who will be involved to help you decide between other option and plan your schedule.
You should now feel more confident in how to approach finding and purchasing your shipping containers. While it’s true that they are relatively simple pieces of equipment, there are probably more things to consider about the transaction than you initially realized. With a solid understanding of the purchase process, you now have one less thing to worry about in designing and building your dream container home!
Found a container for sale in a location not mentioned in the article? Had a good or bad experience with some of the options mentioned? Let us know in the comments below.