Thinking of turning your backyard into an income source? You might have already looked at shipping container houses on HGTV, and be mulling them over as a self-contained, more private alternative to a traditional guest house. Sturdier than a tent or treehouse by far, these containers are great for places that get severe weather. They’re less expensive than a guesthouse. Booking platforms like alternative lodging site GlampingHub categorizes them as outdoor lodging – but they provide a roof and four walls. And they’re a free-standing, encapsulated situation, perfect for landlords and lodgers who don’t want to share a wall or entrance.
But if you think making money off a shipping container rental is as simple as buying it off the Internet, dragging in some furniture and running the electrical from the main house to the container – sorry, there’s quite a bit more to it. And a substantial amount more of an investment. Here to answer all of your container housing questions is Matt White, owner of Recycling the Past and the Flophouze Hotel (a world-class eco-luxe container hotel, as seen in Dwell and House Beautiful).
Getting a Container to Your Property
Locating a selection of shipping containers is, according to White, easily accomplished on the Internet, for an initial investment of between $1000-$8000.
“They’re readily available anywhere,” he says. “There’s a huge backlog of containers all around the world.”
Making sure they’re in the kind of condition you’d want to live or house a guest in though – that’s a whole different issue. Keep in mind that some of these containers have been traveling the world on cargo ships for 20 years, picking up all kinds of wear and tear…and germs.
If possible, try to inspect in person before you buy, advises White. That will, however, limit your search for the perfect container to a specific geographical area.
Once you buy one, you can have it transported by tractor-trailer to your property. The question is, do you want it fitted out before or after it arrives? That’s really a personal preference, largely dependent on whether you want a specific container architect or designer–and if so, what their process is.
Permitting and Other Rules
Before you arrange the delivery of your container – actually, back that up, before you even buy one – do your homework thoroughly to see what the rules are in your local municipality.
“Some municipalities only allow people to use brand new shipping containers for their own construction,” says White. “Some places have minimal regulations. Some places won’t allow them at all.”
And unlike in situations where a homeowner decides to convert an attic to a spare bedroom without getting the local building authorities involved, a 40-foot shipping container can’t exactly be hidden until you’re ready to leave the state. If you don’t move it in legally, you’ll very likely be spotted and ordered to remove it at a financial loss.
Also, keep in mind that beyond permission to move a shipping container onto a property, you’ll also need to get permits for sitework, plumbing, electrical and all other components, the same as for a traditional structure. Sorry if you thought you’d get a pass because of the whole “contained structure” factor.
Gotta-Haves and Nice-to-Haves
So, you’ve gotten official permission, you bought your container, and you’ve found someone to do the build out (or you’re ready to DIY it). What must you include, if you want guests to stay in it, and what are some of the nice-to-haves if budget allows?
First off, you absolutely need insulation, regardless if you live in Hawaii or Maine or Arizona.
“They’ll always get too hot or too cold,” says White. “Choose good insulation.”
No matter how bare-bones you’re going, you also need to do windows and doors no matter what. And if you happen to find a hole in the exoskeleton, of course you’ll need to have it repaired.
If you expect to charge nightly rents on your container house – or host friends and family that you actually like – then you’ll also need to figure out utilities. So basically, electricity and plumbing and waste disposal are also must-haves. And this is where expenses become an unknown quantity.
“It all varies. Can you pull electric from the main house? Are you able to run your shower water as “gray water” into the ground?” says White. “You’ll definitely need a holding tank for the toilet.”
If this sounds like a general contractor’s domain, it definitely is – and that is why most container design specialists including White’s Recycling the Past offer full-service site work above and beyond fitting out the containers.
Beyond the basics, there are endless extras that can make a container lodging more beautiful, more eco-friendly, more comfortable, and more beautiful.
“Our standard units are heated with an HVAC mini-split unit,” says White. But you could go so far as to have a tiny fireplace installed. Also, luxury container homes might have indoor-outdoor kitchens, vintage furniture, a bathtub in the bathroom, and high-style doors, i.e. antique brass or sliding glass.
If you commission one of Recycling the Past’s standard designs, the entry-level pricing is:
20-footers start around $39,000
40 footers start at $79,000
Turnkey luxury with bespoke accents — $99K
However, prices can go “as high as the sky,” – and these prices are only for the decorated structure. Sitework, including all installation of utilities, is additional.
As far as the timeframe: if you go with a basic floor plan and standard materials, it could take anywhere from 90 days to 6 months to receive your fully outfitted container– depending on the scope of work and subcontractors’ schedules.
Why a Shipping Container Instead of a Traditional In-Law
So now you know – a container house is only a bit less costly than an in-law unit, and way more than a luxury tent. That being the case, why would you put one on your property? According to Matt White, who self-selects into the enthusiast group, these are the main reasons:
- It’s a recycled product
- You’re working within an exoskeleton structure that is sturdy: Put hurricane shutters over the windows, and it should be able to withstand a strong tropical storm
- Security— you can put locks on the doors. Also it’s an encapsulated free-standing structure, unlike an in-law unit or a studio over the garage.
- Relocation ability — No matter how built out it is, a shipping container is a moveable structure. If you’re moving out of state, you can disconnect the utilities, pick it up, put it on a trailer, and take it along with you.