Make a Modular Guest House with Shipping Containers

Plan & Budget

How to Create an Attractive Modular Guest House with a Shipping Container

A modular guest house built from shipping containers makes a fantastic addition to your property and home. There are a number of good reasons why you might be thinking about adding a guest house, after all.

Perhaps you often have family and friends visiting, and need additional room or just a more private space for longer-term guests. Or maybe you’re an empty nester, and now that you’re kids have moved out, you’re thinking of downsizing and renting out your main house.

Some of you are probably even thinking entrepreneurially and planning to generate some extra income with Airbnb or other platforms as a host of short term rentals.

Regardless of your reasoning, using a shipping container as the basis for a modular guest house is something you should strongly consider. If you’ve been looking at how to go about building a guest house on your property, this article is for you. We’ll go over many of the pros and cons and then let you decide if using shipping containers is a good fit for your situation!

What is a Modular Guest House?

Before we get too deep into the topic, we need to make sure we’re speaking the same language and on the same page. In other words, let’s find out what ‘modular home’ means to you.

Our recommendations for you will be much more useful if it’s clear what we’re comparing against, after all. Because we’re talking about guest houses and not primary dwellings, we at least know that we’re focused on smaller types of modular houses.

The word modular can mean a few different things in the context of homes. Many modular homes are prefabricated in a factory and shipped to you as a kit for assembly on site. Others are built ready to live in and can be moved into hours after delivery.

Some modular homes are cheap, low quality, and not much different from the manufactured homes you see in trailer parks other than the foundation. Other modular homes are architecturally stunning buildings that are very high-end on price and finishes.

At its core, a modular home is simply a home comprised of smaller modules (anywhere from two to potentially hundreds) that are manufactured to some degree off-site. As we discussed above, beyond that, there is some gray area.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume you’re interested in a modular guest house that’s built well and reasonably priced and not a cheap, almost disposable option. And that it is small, meaning less than 1000 square feet and in all likelihood less than 500 square feet.

Pros and Cons of a Modular Shipping Container Guest House

factory modified shipping container

Shipping containers can be cut, modified, and converted into homes inside a well managed factory, giving a fast, high quality build

With our mental framework in place, let’s go over some of the pros and cons of using a modular container home as a guest house. Many of the reasons are similar to why you may or may not want to use a container for any other type of house. But there are some details that are specific to guest homes.

Not every factor listed below will be relevant to your specific situation. Simply weigh the aspects that are most applicable to your planned project. The best decision for one person is not necessarily good for someone else.

But it’s important to understand these factors before you spend too much time researching, or even worse, too much money buying something you don’t actually want or need.

Pros

  • Expandable: If you decide you want to add on to a shipping container modular guest house, it’s super easy. You can stack additional shipping containers on top of or beside the original, then cut an opening for a door or staircase. You might change your mind later on down the road so it’s nice to know that this is always an option.
  • Semi-Permanent: Shipping container homes can be fully permanent if you want, but they can also be moved as well. It just depends on how you attach them to the ground. Due to their beefy steel structure, they aren’t dependent on a slab foundation for support, so relocating them isn’t that big of a deal. After all, they are called shipping containers for a reason: they were designed to be moved. And thousands of cities around the world have the equipment to move them.
  • Uniformity: Shipping containers were purposefully designed to securely carry cargo all around the world. In order to work with every country’s equipment, they are standardized in their size and strength. If you buy a modular home made from one, even if the company goes out of business, you’ll always be able buy another container, find someone who can fix your container, etc. Unlike one-off modular homes, everyone is familiar with shipping containers. This also makes it easier to compare price and quality between builders, because you know they are starting from the exact same unit and building it out how they want. And if someday in the future you need to sell it, buyers will have a better understanding of what it is and how it is built than just a custom modular build without containers.
  • Low Cost: You can buy a shipping container for just a few thousand dollars, and even less if you buy used. At that point, you have a very spartan but weatherproof, secure building. Further modifications are necessary to turn it into a dwelling of course, but you’re completely in control of your design and how much you want to spend. Whether you build the container guest house yourself or hire a contractor, you can definitely save money over other types of traditional and modular construction if you follow our cost-saving recommendations.
  • High Quality: Shipping container homes start with an extremely durable container that’s been engineered for the toughest environments and built to exacting standards in world-class factories, so you know they have quality at their core. Compared to other types of modular guest houses, building with shipping containers is almost always going to result in a stronger, more resilient, longer-lasting product. Ultimately, the overall quality of a home is not due just to the materials, but to how they are actually built. So you still need to ensure good craftsmanship is used in the conversion from raw container to container guest house. This quality also means your visitors and things will be better protected, especially if you follow some of our container security recommendations.
  • Fast: With any type of modular housing, you’re going to save yourself quite a bit of time over conventional construction due to the efficiencies of modular components that are built in a factory. And with container guest houses specifically, that speed is obvious. If like most people, you’re planning on using a single shipping container as the basis of your modular guest house, most companies can have it converted into a home in a matter of weeks. They may even have models already constructed that fit your needs and are available that day. Dropping it off in your yard and hooking it up to utilities can be done in less than a day in some cases, then you’re move-in ready.

Cons

  • Zoning and Building Codes: Some areas have restrictions when it comes to the sizes of homes, how they appear on the outside, and how they are constructed. Every place is different of course, so we can’t give a specific answer that applies to everyone. The good thing is that almost all the rules can be complied with using a shipping container modular guest house, you just may need to make some tweaks and changes. Our article on zoning and building codes goes into much more detail on this issue, so check it out!
  • Financing: While some larger builders do offer financing for their modular homes (built with containers or not), it can be difficult to get traditional home mortgages for modular construction. Given that a modular guest house is usually small, many people just pay for them with their savings. Other options are getting an unsecured loan or home equity loan. If you hire a builder who builds your home on-site over a period of months, you would typically several progress payments as they finished different phases of work. This spreads out your purchase price a bit over time, but likely still within the same year or two.
  • Design Limitations: Most shipping container modular home companies have set basic models for you to purchase. You’re very limited in choosing your design for the modular guest house. Most modular home designs are variations of rectangular designs, whethey are built with containers or not. If you’re looking for gabled roofs, dormers, curved walls, or anything else out of the ordinary, you’re probably better off using conventional construction.

A Word of Caution

What we’ve been talking about above are standard shipping containers being modified into housing. However, there are some companies doing something a little different that you should be aware of.

A number of Chinese companies sell ‘container houses’ that look like they are made from shipping containers, but are actually purpose-built modular buildings that are built from the ground up into houses. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it does change what you’re getting.

flatpack-container-house

A prefabricated ‘container house’ like this may look like it’s built from a shipping container, but it’s actually a very different product (Source)

Unlike actual shipping containers, these buildings are usually not as strong and are built with different materials. They aren’t necessarily built to the quality you expect to see in your country. Often-times the walls of these units are foldable/collapsible in order to make them cheaper to ship.

These types of modular container homes are probably good for some situations and are certainly cheap, but they definitely aren’t regular shipping container homes. We want you to be clear on the difference.

If you work with a builder, find out if they convert regular shipping containers into homes in a factory in your country. Or, do they purchase these types of prefab container homes from a contract manufacturer in China.

Where to Get a Modular Container Guest House

If you’ve decided that a container home guest house is right for, you essentially have two options for how to proceed. You can either all (or mostly) yourself, or hire a builder to do it for you.

For those who have the time and skills to undertake a DIY project, you’re in luck. Our website is full of helpful information about planning, designing, and building container homes. When you’re ready to get serious, our  “How to Build a Container Home” eBook has almost 100 pages of information that’s helped thousands of people all around the world with container projects over the years. It’s a small investment that could end up saving you thousands of dollars.

Many people recognize that they would rather hire a professional for a project of this magnitude. If that’s you, we recommend that you Contact Us with what you’re hoping to do and where you’re located. We have a huge database of container home builders and designers around the world that we can connect you with.

How to Outfit Your Modular Shipping Container Guest House

How to Design Your Modular Shipping Container Guest House

So your modular shipping container guest house is finished and on your property. Utilities are hooked up. But it’s basically an empty box.

Sure it has windows and cabinets and a bathroom, but it’s missing furniture, decorations, and all the things that turn a dull building into a vibrant home. To help you out, below are a few of our best tips for outfitting an attractive modular guest house:

  • Tip #1: Keep it free from clutter. Don’t overdecorate it or your guests can feel overwhelmed. Give them the right amount of space, which includes having enough room to store their bags and other personal items. Have functional furniture, but don’t overdo it and leave them little room to manuever. When you decorate, give the guest house personality and class without being obnoxious. 
  • Tip #2: Don’t use your guest house as overflow storage. It can be tempting to move your Christmas decorations, old sports equipment, and collection of vintage magazines to the guest house. But avoid the temptation! Remember why you built the guest house in the first place. What happens when you get an unexpected visitor for a few days? Either you’re struggling to clean it up or your guest is stuck in a maze of boxes with little living space.
  • Tip #3: Create a relaxing atmosphere. Decorating an attractive modular guest house is about so much more than a pretty look. You want a guest house that allows your visitors to relax and unwind. Use a candle for a pleasant calming scent. Make sure to clean the bedding set regularly so they’re always fresh when a guest shows up. Have a few of your favorite teas, coffees, and snacks laid out. Make sure the bathroom is stocked with soaps, shampoos, fresh towels, and extra toiletries.
  • Tip #4: Try out long drapes or curtains in your guest home. They can help coordiante a theme and colorpallete plus they soften the light coming in through the windows. Curtains also provide privacy from people in your backyard or the outdoor space around the guesthouse. Your guest may have a differnent schedule than you, so make sure you afford them the ability to get a good night’s rest without disturbance. This is especially relevant if your guest house is located close to your main house.
  • Tip #5: Use mirrors. Mirrors help open up a room and make it seem bigger than it is without the privacy, noise, and insulation issues of windows. Mirrors are tactful and, more importantly, functional. 
  • Tip #6: Make the walls functional. Yes artwork and heirlooms are neat to display around your guest house, but some practical additions will also be appreciated. Hang hooks that can be used to hang coats and scarves. Include small shelves to hold wallets purses, and change. A whiteboard or chalkboard can be a great way to allow guests to remember flight times, important phone numbers, etc. and give you a place to add a handwritten welcome message before their arrival. Guests will feel right at home.
  • Tip #7: Add some color. Your modular guest house shouldn’t be too trendy, as trends changes and guest preferences differ. A neutral pallet that will look good for years is a great base to start with. Then, splash in some bright colors with accent pieces to brighten up the space and give it life. Consider incorporating a theme that runs between rooms across the entire guest house. It could be a favorite color, a treasured movie, or a special destination you’ve visited.

For many more tips about decorating and furnishing a container home, our container home interiors article goes into much more depth about great ways to make a beautiful container home.

Summary

A shipping container home is one type of modular guest house that is definitely worth considering. We went over several of the pros and cons, and now it’s up to you decide the right type of construction for your situation.

We also shared how to actually procure a container guest house, and what to do with it once it arrives in order to make it liveable and beautiful. Just because a guest house is small doesn’t mean your decorating options are limited, after all.

What do you think about using shipping containers for a guest house? Let us know in the comments below.