How To Prepare For A Shipping Container Build

Plan & Budget


Once you’ve had most of your preliminary questions answered and have committed to building a container home, there are several key items you need to start thinking about and planning for.

It is essential that you carefully consider and devote adequate time to each of these elements of your plan.  Adequately preparing in advance will decrease stress as you move forward.

Below we’ll explore each of these elements in more detail and discuss how you can best prepare for your shipping container home.

Container Project Budget

Shipping Container Home Budget

The first thing that you need to prepare is your budget.  This is also the most important element of your plan.  This will shape the rest of your project.

Your budget should cover every cent which you are planning to spend on your container home, including:

  • Design costs
  • Buying your container
  • Buying land
  • Contractor fees (structural engineer, architect, welders, etc.)
  • Internal furnishings and fixtures (lighting, kitchen, bathroom)
  • Foundation, etc.

For a cost breakdown of constructing a building from a shipping container, refer to shipping container home costs.

When preparing your budget, we always recommend putting some distinct money aside to create a contingency budget.

A contingency budget is a sum of money set aside which you use to pay any unexpected expenses during your build.  No matter how well you plan your build, unfortunately, even with experienced builders, there may be unexpected costs which arise.

We generally recommend a 20% contingency for most builds, and a greater percentage for more complex builds.

For example, let’s say that your total, all-in, funds for your container home is $100,000.  In this case, you would allocate $80,000 to spend on your primary budget and then set aside $20,000 as your contingency budget.

After allocating your budget, begin to plan and design your shipping container home and decide where your building will be located.

Container Building Design

Shipping Container Home Floor Plan

You can design the inside of your building using pencil and paper or design software.  There are also professional architects who can be hired to design the building for you.

Location and Land

After apportioning your budget and designing your container, you can now start the process of finding a suitable location for your building.

Finding Land

If you already own land that you plan to use, you can skip forward in this article to the next section.  But remember that even if you already have land that you will need to make certain your new building will fit on the land and will meet all existing building codes and zoning restrictions.

If you don’t have land yet, depending on your budget, we would suggest one of two different approaches.

  1. If you have a small budget, we suggest that you find your land first.  Finding land is hard enough without worrying about whether your design will work with the land.  If you purchase the land first, you won’t have this problem.  This approach means that you can find affordable land and then design your building around the land.
  1. If you have a larger budget, we suggest that you first design your building and then find a piece of land which accommodates your design.  While finding land to meet an existing set of criteria is harder, it will ensure that the land you purchase is perfectly suitable for the building which you’ve designed.

As you begin the process of choosing land for your building, you will want to create a list of requirements for your land.  This list can include:

  • General location of land
  • Size of the piece of land
  • Cost of the land
  • Access to water (any wells or streams on site)
  • Subsurface soil type (clay, sand, etc.)
  • Proximity to neighbors
  • Existing access to land from closest road

Once you’ve created a list of requirements, start the search for land.  A good place to begin your search is through online real estate listings.  Using these resources you can also search through previously sold pieces of land and check the sale price.  This investigation will allow you to evaluate different areas and costs as you search for an appropriate piece of land.

After you have found an area or neighborhood which seems suitable and is within your budget, determine if there are codes or restrictions regarding permits for shipping container homes.

We suggest that you drive around the area that you have identified and look for any nonstandard buildings (i.e. log cabins, container homes, fixed trailers, wooden frame homes and steel buildings).

This exploration allows you to gauge the likelihood of getting a permit.  Of course, you don’t have to specifically find shipping container homes, but if you do find one in the local area, that is even better!  Any nonstandard building is a good sign that zoning is open to unconventional buildings.

Shipping Containers

Shipping Containers

Turn your focus to the actual shipping containers themselves.

At first thought, it seems that which shipping containers you buy will largely be decided by your design.  For example, if your design calls for high ceilings, then you will need high cube container.

However, the decision about which container to purchase is rarely this simple.  The design and shipping container selection is usually an evolving process.

Generally, your local shipping container dealer will not stock every type of container.  It’s possible that you may need to visit more than one dealer to get the exact container that you want.  However, remember that occasionally dealers will run promotions on certain types of containers.  If your design can be adjusted to fit a container that has a discounted price, you can use the difference in cost to make some other upgrades to your building or you can just happily come in under budget.

If budget is not a concern, then you can simply choose your desired container and ship it to your location from the nearest source.  If, however, you are on a strict budget, you need to do some legwork to determine the best option for you.

Regardless of the type of container you are buying, you also need to decide whether you will be buying a new container, a one-trip container, or a used container.

Here is an overview of these types of containers.  Refer to the more comprehensive information in complete guide to purchasing shipping containers.

  1. New containers offer the advantage of being in immaculate condition and are easy to source and purchase.  However, new containers are much more expensive and less environmentally friendly than reclaimed containers.
  1. One-trip containers are basically new shipping containers which have only been used for a single shipment.  Buying one-trip containers offers exceptional value for the money, with peace of mind about the container’s condition.  The major drawback to these containers is availability.  They can be difficult to locate and purchase because there is generally a high demand for one-trip containers.
  1. Used containers can be an extremely good value for the money, providing you purchase them in good condition.  However, used containers must be thoroughly inspected prior to purchase.  It is essential that you see the shipping container yourself before you buy them.  Since it is incredibly easy to make used containers look like they are in good condition in photos, some  unscrupulous dealers may be hiding corrosion or infested floor boards.  Both of these are expensive to repair and hard lessons to learn.

When inspecting a used container:

  1. Walk around the perimeter of the container looking for any signs of corrosion and major dents.
  2. Look down the major support beams.
  3. Check underneath the container.
  4. Check the roof of the container.  Generally, people don’t check the roof of the container, but in our experience this is one of the most important places to check.  Used containers left outside for long periods of time can have extreme corrosion due to standing water.

Self-Build or Contractor Build

Determine whether you will construct the building yourself or if you are going to hire contractors.

If you are building it yourself, you will need to prepare your equipment and tools.  If you have built homes or buildings before, you will likely have the majority of tools needed except possibly grinders, welders and lifting equipment for the containers.

If you are using contractors, then you need to get organized, do some research, and make plans well before the construction begins.  Narrow your list of contractors down to a manageable list.  Interview the contractors.  Narrow the list further down to 2-3 contractors.  Ask to visit previous homes or buildings they have built.  Note that this whole process could take up to three months, depending on the time you have available and the schedules of all of the people that you need to meet.

Are you still uncertain about whether to build your shipping container home yourself or to hire a contractor?  Read the article Should you build your own shipping container home? Also, remember that regardless of your decision, there are a number of important things to consider during construction as well.


With a basic understanding of these key issues, you will have a much smoother build process.

Did you discover any other important issues during the preparation stage of your build?  Let us know below.