Shipping Container Zoning, Permits, and Building Codes

Plan & Budget

Shipping Container Zoning Permits and Building Codes Blog Cover

As you become more familiar with container homes, it’s natural to start to ask questions about their legality and steps to get approval for building them. In most cases, you can’t just build a container home anywhere you want and there is a lot of confusion out there on what rules apply and how to get started. 

Oftentimes, people are asking the wrong question.  Instead of “Are containers legal in my location?”, you should ask, “What rules exist that could affect a potential shipping container home, what parts of my design might those rules affect, and who makes those rules in my area?”

Ultimately, where to build has a lot to do with you as the owner. When people ask us where we recommend for them to build a shipping container home, they are leaving out the information about themselves and their personal preferences. What makes a perfect location for one person might make it a terrible location for someone else.  With that said, there are still factors which are applicable to everyone.

We’ll approach the subject of regulations by clarifying the scope of what is regulated, then breaking the rules down into three sections: How, What, and Who.

  • How: The different types of building regulations and how they can impact your container house project
  • What: The specific container home design choices that are commonly regulated
  • Who: The various regulating entities you may have to deal with 

After that, we’ll touch on the future of container building regulation, talk about best practices for getting started, and give a few thoughts on US states that may be especially good candidates for shipping container homes.

Scope of Shipping Container Building Regulations

Before we dive into details about the regulations, it’s important to understand the scope of things they apply to.  Although the primary focus here is on container homes, there are quite a few people just planning to use containers for temporary or permanent storage.

Storage Containers

It’s fairly common for people to enquire about having a shipping container on their property as they do make an excellent place to store things. And when we say storage containers, we’re talking about a shipping container used for storage of tools, materials, or equipment and NOT for occupation by humans.  Since containers used for storage aren’t designed for habitation, they typically fall under a different set of rules.

It’s important to know that there may still be regulations that apply to you for this type of cargo container usage, even though it’s not set up for habitation. The procedures discussed later in the article should still apply.

Container Homes

The term ‘container home’ is surprisingly open-ended and can mean different things to different people. You may have even encountered this when describing your interest in container homes to friends and family.

Some people picture something similar to a simple cabin, while others envision a custom-built architectural masterpiece. For right now, we don’t really have universally agreed-upon terminology to describe these differences, which leads to confusion.

Imagine if a friend tells you that they’re thinking about getting a cat, then the next time you see them, they have a full-grown tiger! You’re likely going to be surprised and terrified because what you pictured when hearing ‘cat’ was not the same thing that your friend pictured.

Why is this important? When we start talking about regulations, first impressions are important as they anchor someone’s thinking around a topic and they can be difficult to overcome. When you first mention that you’re planning to build a container home, you want the person on the other side of the table (or the other end of the phone) to have a clear vision of what you’re talking about.

So if it’s clear that you need to be specific when communicating about your container, you may be wondering what potential ways you could describe it. In addition to size as we spoke about above, another factor is occupancy.  For instance, will the home be a primary dwelling, a weekend home, a short term rental, or something in between?

The planned usage and occupancy can affect which regulations apply, so it’s important to discuss all of these factors when describing your plans to regulators.

Planning Your Container Home

Types of Building Regulations You Might Encounter

Regulation is actually an umbrella term that covers a few different types of rules that can affect shipping container houses. Collectively they determine both what you can build and where you can build it, but it’s important to understand how each of them can impact your project.

Property Zoning

Zoning breaks up large swaths of urban land into different types of zones that determine, at a high level, the types of things can be built there.  Zoning is used by city governments to plan the growth and development of a city in advance in order to keep similar types of buildings grouped together and control density (think houses versus highrises). 

If you’ve ever noticed how some cities have industrial areas that are contained in one area, or that ‘adult stores’ and liquor stores are usually not located near residential neighborhoods and churches, you’ve observed the effects of zoning.

Other than the notable exception of Houston, Texas, most American cities have zoning laws, though they are less common in other countries. Typically, zones are broken into categories like residential and commercial, then further subdivided from that.  For example, here’s the R-1 through R-5 residential zoning that applies in Tallahassee, Florida.

The zoning of a property can be changed through rezoning or variances, but doing so would require robust documentation and potentially the buy-in of neighbors.  Zoning changes usually face pressure because existing property holders don’t want to see their property values decline.

Building Codes and Permits

The next type of common shipping container regulation is building codes and permits.  Building codes stipulate the standards of construction that will be applied, meaning how homes are to be built. Building permits are what you typically apply for to prove your compliance with applicable building codes and gain approval to continue construction activities.

In the US and several other developed countries, most codes are based on the International Code Counsel’s International Residential Code (IRC) and International Building Code (IBC). These codes are updated every year or two, with the version denoted by the year it was published.

The IBC and IRC incorporate related codes by reference such as the International Plumbing Code, the International Mechanical Code, the National Electric Code, and the National Fire Protection Association standards. In turn, most cities incorporate the IBC and IRC into their own codes with occasional amendments.

Some US states have their own codes as well, such as the Massachusetts State Building Code.  A great place to see which codes are used in which state (and city) is the ConstructConnect Building Code Tool. Other countries have their own types of code requirements, which are diverse enough that we can’t go into any specifics here.

In order to get approved permits for shipping container homes, you need to prove, via your permit application, that you’ve complied with the applicable building codes and possibly other regulations.

Mobile, Manufactured, and Modular Building Codes

The differences between mobile homes, manufactured homes, and modular (prefabricated) homes can be hard to distinguish.  However, since different building standards apply, it’s important to discern which is authoritative for a particular case and how that might relate to shipping container construction.

A manufactured home is a new name for what was originally called a mobile home.  The name was changed in 1976, but both names refer to homes mounted on a permanent trailer chassis.

These homes are covered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards (commonly known as the HUD code). This code is the only federally-regulated national building code in the US, and it applies to homes that are built entirely in a factory and shipped to the building site on a permanent chassis for installation. 

Modular homes (in which building modules are built in a factory, then transported to the site and assembled on a permanent foundation) usually fall under the IBC, not the HUD code.

Recreational Vehicles (RV’s) are similar to manufactured homes but are exempted by federal law in §3282.8(g) and instead fall under the RV Industry Association’s (RVIA) Standards.

We mention all of this because there is some confusion about which category certain container homes fall under. For instance, there are container home builders that sell both 20-foot and 40-foot container homes permanently mounted on a trailer chassis. 

In the US, the regulations have been lagging behind both the tiny home and container home movements (which do have some overlap), but in January 2019 HUD released some clarifying guidance. Basically, the builder of a home-on-a-trailer-chassis can choose whether the home is intended for part-time recreational use or full-time occupancy, and that, along with some size restriction, will determine whether RV or HUD codes are appropriate.

For the majority of container homes that are intended for installation on a permanent foundation, the IRC will apply just like for any other house. This is spelled out in this HUD FAQ which we’ll quote here:

I would like to convert shipping containers into homes. Can they be listed or sold as manufactured housing?

All manufactured homes are built to the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards, 24 CFR Part 3280. Manufactured homes are transported in one or more sections on a permanent chassis and display a red certification label on the exterior of each transportable section.

Shipping containers that are converted into housing units are subject to state and local building codes like modular and site-built homes. Converted shipping containers cannot be accepted as a HUD-code manufactured home unless they are provided with a permanent chassis and are transported to the site on their own running gear and otherwise comply with all HUD Standards and Regulations for manufactured homes.

Deed Restrictions (Restrictive Covenants) and HOA Rules

So far, the regulations we’ve described have for the most part either been government-created or government-enforced.  However, there’s one last category of rules that we need to discuss.

Deed restrictions (sometimes called Restrictive Covenants) are specific requirements that included on the deed for a property.  Typically, deed restrictions are added by the original developer of a land parcel to keep a uniform appearance for a neighborhood that protects property values. 

Deed restrictions are similar to and may coincide with, but aren’t the same as, homeowner’s association (HOA) rules. In short, deed restrictions are permanently fixed to the deed and usually take a court order to remove, while HOA rules can be voted on and changed at will.  

Although deed restrictions are placed on the property deed, they are private agreements and not directly enforced by the government. HOA’s are usually the entities that would attempt to enforce deed restrictions through the legal action in the court system, although individual nearby property owners could also do so.

Due to their private nature, deed restrictions can restrict almost anything about the property’s use as long as it’s legal. Common types include use restrictions, lease restrictions, and mandatory architectural reviews.

For these and other reasons, we recommend using a lawyer familiar with real estate transactions if there are any serious questions about deed restrictions on property you already own or are thinking about purchasing. Deed restrictions will be uncovered by the title company as part of the property purchasing process, and you’ll need to review these carefully for anything that might affect your container home project.

Common Container Home Items that Get Regulated

There is a ton of variability in who regulates what with regards to buildings. So rather than try to describe the specific regulatory practices of hundreds of different entities, we’ll start by listing the types of things that might get regulated in a shipping container home project and examples of each.  Depending on where you live, all, some, or none of these would apply to you. And the rules may be from a combination of property zoning, building codes, and restrictive covenants.

  • Appearance: Color, style, and material used for walls, roof, and other externally viewable parts of the house
  • Accessibility: Requirements related to making your home accessible to people with disabilities
  • Size: Square footage, number of bedrooms, maximum allowable height, etc.
  • Site Offsets: Distance from the property line to the edge of the house, distance from neighboring structures, etc.
  • Foundation: Type of foundation, depth, height over ground level for flooding, etc.
  • Landscaping: Types of plants that are allowed, the number of trees that can be removed for construction, etc.
  • Means of Egress: Size and number of exterior exits, number of rooms that can be transited through before getting to an exterior exit, size of interior passageways, etc.
  • Fire and Smoke Protection: Number, type, and locations of smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, etc.
  • Electrical, Mechanical, and Plumbing: Details around materials, design, and installation of these systems
  • Energy Conservation: Specific requirements regarding things like windows, insulation, sealing around penetrations, appliances, etc. to reduce energy usage
  • Structure: Requirements for compliance with wind and snow loads, structural reinforcements, etc.

Regulating Entities

Each region of the United States (not to mention the rest of the world!) is different with regards to which level of government has jurisdiction. We can’t possibly discuss how every single piece of land is treated, so instead, we’ll discuss the different levels of government you may need to work with: municipal, county, state, and federal. Typically, the regulations from higher-order entities apply as well as those of the lowest level having jurisdiction.  For example, in a city, all four types of regulations would apply.

Municipal Government Regulation

When we say municipal government, we just mean cities and towns. They create rules that pertain to the land area within their bounds, but more rural areas may exist outside of city limits. Cities from time to time will annex new land into the city, but they typically will ‘grandfather in’ existing structures so you wouldn’t be required to comply with new regulations that didn’t apply to you when you originally built your container home.  However, it’s best to ask more about this when purchasing land to find out if there is rumor of future annexation.

The majority of building codes and almost all zoning in the United States is enforced at the municipal level.

County Government Regulation

The county government is the next step up from municipalities. While many properties aren’t in a city, EVERY property in the United States is in a county.  Depending on how urban the county is, it may be more or less regulated with regards to building regulations. In other countries, there is usually something similar to a county to that subdivides a country into sub-regions.

State Government Regulation

In the United States, most state governments don’t have too much involvement in building regulations for the most part.  There are notable exceptions for things like hurricane requirements in Florida, earthquakes in California, etc.

Federal Government Regulation

Other than the HUD Code that was previously discussed for manufactured homes that include a trailer chassis, the US Federal Government doesn’t really have any building regulations.  In other countries, it’s possible that almost all regulations are made at the federal or national level.  

The Future of Shipping Container Homes Regulations

The growing popularity of container homes with consumers has also led to increasing familiarity on the part of regulating entities.  The more they see the spectrum of what’s possible with shipping container homes, the more accepting of them they will be.

One of the biggest needs is specifically incorporating container construction into applicable codes and regulations. We’re seeing some movement in that direction lately.

For instance, the ICC released its G5-2019 Guideline for the Safe Use of ISO Intermodal Shipping Containers Repurposed as Buildings and Building Components. This is a preliminary step toward having containers added into the 2021 Edition of the IBC.  You can read the previously released draft version of the G5 Guideline for free to get a general idea, but the approved version must be purchased.

The ICC also sells the AC462 Structural Building Materials From Shipping Containers, which some professional container home builders are now using as a guide to safe container construction given the lack of formal codes.

Once the 2021 IBC is released, and government entities start to incorporate it in the years following, the acceptance of container homes as a mainstream construction type will be much simpler. Until then, it may take a little more legwork to get the necessary approvals.

In the meantime, more and more areas continue to open their arms to containers, and there are VERY few locations where container homes are unequivocally banned.

Getting Started

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed after reading about all the possible rules and who might enforce them, don’t worry. Below we’ll give you some tips to get started on the right foot and have a successful beginning to your project. In almost all cases, you’re not going to find something that just says “no container homes”. 

Instead, you’ll find rules that may cause you to have to alter the design of your future home.  That’s only the beginning of the story though, not the end!

You need to figure out which rules apply to you and your land. We recommend starting at the lowest level and working your way up.

Navigating the Hierarchy

The first place to start is with deed restrictions on your property.  You may already have that information saved from your purchase, otherwise, you can work with a title company to locate it.

Next is the local government. You should know (or be able to find out) if your property is in the city limits.  If so, you’ll start with the city government.  If not, you’ll start with the county government.

In either case, you can probably find out some information online, but a visit in person will be more effective. For cities, you’ll likely need to work with the zoning office AND the building permitting office. For counties, you’ll just have the building permitting office if anything. Note that every area will probably have slightly different names for these offices, but you should be able to figure it out by contacting the general administration office and explaining what you’re looking for.

As we’ve already mentioned, all zoning and the majority of code-related rules are made at the local level. If there are state-level rules that apply to you, these local offices should be able to tell you and refer to you the right resources to find out more. Therefore, there’s usually not a need to directly reach out to anyone at the state level, or national level for that matter.

We often get asked about states allow shipping containers, but as you can tell from this discussion, the state doesn’t have too much to do with the building regulations.  Most of the decisions that are relevant to you are made at the city and county level.

If you’re located outside the United States, this may not necessarily be the case.  But regardless, we recommend starting at the lowest level of government and enquiring there.  If they aren’t the entity with jurisdiction, they should be able to refer you the next level up that is, and so on.

How to Talk about your Container Home with Regulators

As we’ve previously mentioned, it’s very rare for a regulator to just outright ban shipping containers as a building medium.  It’s really not logical to do so, because the category of ‘container home’ is so vast. 

There are people who have built container homes with interior walls and exterior cladding that make it basically impossible to know there are containers underneath, for instance.  Sometimes what is being ‘banned’ is homes below a certain size, or homes with a corrugated metal exterior, etc. as we talked about in the section above.  We make this point to say that the devil is in the details, and it’s important to understand where exactly the issue lies.

When someone asks “Are shipping containers homes legal in my state” to us or any other online resource, they would be much better served asking a similar question to the local regulators who are the ones who will actually be making the decision.  But how you approach this conversation can be crucial for your eventual success.

In a lot of bureaucratic processes, such as property zoning and building permitting, there is a person or group of people who stand as gatekeepers.  Understanding a bit of psychology and human nature can help you as you navigate your way through these gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers are human beings with their own set of emotions and baggage, and they operate off of incentives just like anyone else.  In most cases, a break from the status quo makes their job more difficult so they’d prefer to stick with what they know.  In addition, they may take personal/professional risk in approving something controversial or out of the ordinary. It’s often easier to say “no” than to learn about how to help get you to “yes”.  Understanding this can help in your approach.

Also remember that the gatekeeper has a boss, and their boss also has a boss.  Going to the bosses shouldn’t be your first move, but keep it in mind if you hit an immovable roadblock with the gatekeeper.

Keep in mind that hearing a “no” now doesn’t have to be a “no” tomorrow.  Situations change, so even if you get a little pushback, some persistence and innovative thinking can take you far as some of our Case Studies have shown.

In general, preparation is your friend.  Show up for meetings prepared and confident with supplemental information that shows you did your homework. This will help give people that are “on the fence” the confidence that you know what you’re doing and won’t build something that they’ll regret approving.

Unless you have a lot of experience with real estate development and building construction, it may help to have a professional (like an architect or construction contractor) help you with getting the necessary approvals.  They can develop professional materials, know how to implement building codes in your area, and may even have personal relationships with gatekeepers that can help smooth the path forward.

Great US States to Build In

Now we’ve covered some of the various building regulations, let’s look at a few popular places in the U.S. to build a shipping container home (in no particular order, below). This is by no means a list of the ONLY places you can build container homes, but rather, just a few places to highlight where others have had success.  For additional data on where containers have already been built, check out our Visit section to see shipping container short term rentals in various states and countries.

1. Texas

Texas is a fantastic location to build a shipping container home.

It has a proven track record with several shipping container homes already built here, both large and small.

Texas is also known for having a more relaxed regulatory environment in general, which also pertains to building regulations. However, as in any state, regulations are generally most strict in large cities, so look to more suburban and rural areas for an easier path to approval.

2. California

Next on our list is The Golden State, California.

California is notorious for strict land use, so it might surprise some of you that it makes the list.

While strict in some ways, California also prides itself on its progressivism and there are plenty of unique homes in California to confirm this.

There have been numerous successful shipping container home builds already, and we had the chance to interview an owner who accomplished the feat.  Mike built a hybrid container home outside of San Diego and got all the approvals necessary, so the trail has been blazed.

If you’re considering California, consider areas to the north or well inland from the coast, as land tends to be more reasonably priced there and ordinances are less strict.

3. Tennessee

Third on our list is Tennessee, generally considered a great all-rounder.

On the Freedom in the 50 States report, it is ranked 7th for land freedom meaning there isn’t too much local interference and regulation preventing you from building.

Additionally, it is also a great place for people looking for off-grid living. Most plots of land will have access to water and the farming season tends to average more than 250 days a year. Unlike other areas in the south, Tennessee also experiences all four seasons.

As for price, anywhere near the Blue Ridge Mountains can be expensive, so look for land in West Tennessee if you’re looking for affordability.

4. Louisiana

According to research by the Cato Institute, Louisiana ranks number 1 for land freedom in the US.

They calculated this using the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index, which is a measure of the local land use regulatory climate (i.e. how much local regulation there is on what you can build on your own land).

It turns out Louisiana has very light zoning regulations which could be why we have already seen multiple shipping container homes built there. Louisiana is renowned for its small local government and hands-off approach.

5. Missouri

At number five on our list is Missouri.

Those that live in Missouri fondly refer to it as one of the best kept secret states – with warm summers and mild winters, it has plenty to offer!

In terms of land, the prices are very reasonable and the “local zoning is quite loose”.

If you want land with access to rivers and forests, it would be a great pick for you.

Several container homes have been built in Missouri, including this beautiful home built near Rogersville for only $150,000.

Generally speaking, most of the rural areas don’t require building permits, which make it a perfect location for building a shipping container home.

6. Oregon

Next on our list is the Beaver State, Oregon.

While Oregon is known for stricter builder regulations than most other states, it is also well known amongst the off-grid community for being very progressive with regards to alternative construction.

The state’s reputation for ‘live and let live’ is reflected in their acceptance of off-grid communities.  One of the most famous of these is the Three Rivers Recreation Area, which consists of 4,000 acres and is home to over 600 residents.

Consider Oregon if you’d like to live near the west coast, but appreciate a slightly different cultural feel than California.

7. Alaska

Last on our list of great states to build a container home in is Alaska, The Last Frontier, known for its vast expansive terrain and low population density.

Crucially for people wanting to build their own container home, Alaska does not zone low-cost housing. This is perfect for people looking to build an affordable shipping container home.

There have been several container homes built here, including this impressive one shown in the video below. Built by Matt Petersen, the home utilizes strong roll-out steel sides to prevent vandalism.

If you’re looking for cheap land, snow and lots of personal freedom, Alaska is almost certainly the place where you should build your shipping container home!

Summary

We hope this information has been helpful as you start to think about a shipping container home. As you have seen, the rules vary quite a bit from place to place, so the best place to find out what applies to you is actually asking the entity with jurisdiction.

How you approach the conversation can be crucial, so showing up prepared will help move you forward in the process.  Remember, even if the rules are completely objective (and oftentimes, they aren’t), there is always some leeway in how they are interpreted.  That little bit of ‘give and take’ will come down to a human relationship.

Remember too that if you’ve found land that you’re interested in purchasing, make sure to thoroughly research it before you decide to buy it. Is it in the city limits and does it have any strange zoning or restrictive covenants?

Take a look around the neighborhood and look to see if you notice any unorthodox or non-traditional buildings. If so, that’s usually a good sign that the local area is receptive to outside the box thinking and signals that the road ahead of you has already been blazed by someone else.

Let us know in the comments below where you have built or are thinking about building your shipping container home!

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