Homesteading with a Shipping Container House, Part I

Posted on Apr 26, 2010 in Alt Energy, Tiny Homes, & Structures, Blog, Editorials, & Thoughts

Kevin Hayden –

Cross-posted at my dedicated blog,

Years ago, I saw a picture of a shipping container house.  I knew right then that I wanted to build one myself.  Shipping containers are roughly 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, with the smaller conex being 20 feet long.  They are wind-proof, fire-resistant, water tight, and provide a perfect “shell” in which to start with.  I have some minor construction and heavy equipment experience, along with a basic understanding of electrical systems, so I thought it would be easy to accomplish.

Here I am, years later, and I am just now starting my project.  I looked at dozens of different properties for the project.  Never could I find one that was within my price range or offered easy financing options.  If it did, it had heavy restrictions and covenants attached to the land deed, preventing me from building what I wanted.  I discovered very quickly that even in America, home of the free, we are not free to build the size of house we want and can afford.  I soon learned that even out in the county-maintained areas, 20 or 30 miles away from the metro, that you could typically only build a standard 2×4 framed home starting at 800-900 sq. feet or larger.  On top of all of this, many county governments require you to apply for building permits and have periodic code enforcement inspections – the very thing that I wanted to avoid!

I know there are many people out there who will say, “That’s to ensure others against a poorly made structure…”  “That’s so that a uniform safety standard is achieved.”  And more nonsense.  If I am building a structure on my property, who’s responsibility – and ultimately, burden – is it if the thing comes crashing down around me?  It’s mine.  It all falls on me, literally.

Do I not have the choice to run this risk?  Why must faceless government entities tell me how big my house must be or to what insulation standard?  Maybe I want to live in a sod home, like the early pioneers of Oklahoma once did.  Nope.  Against code.

How about a haybale structure?   Nope.  And shipping containers?  Not without a lot of alteration and additional supports installed, not to mention pleading with the county permit board that a shipping container can offer a fantastic, safe, secure home.  It’s too weird, too controversial – too “out there” for most of them.

So through my searches and aggravation, I finally discovered a small plot of land north east of the Oklahoma City metro.  It is roughly 3 acres and surrounded by a 15 foot deep crick (small, narrow creek) on 2 sides.  The other large side opens up to a neighbor’s massive wooded valley and is protected by a brand new 6-strand barbed wire fence.  It is over 1,400 feet in length and approximately 150 wide.  It has no roadway on it.  No homesite or pad.  It is half wildflowers and half prarie grass.  When I saw it, I knew it was perfect.  It’s length ran east to west, giving it a full day’s worth of sun no matter where we placed the connex boxes.  It also had a good quality well already dug, although it had no pump or pressure tank, fittings, etc. installed.  It was simply an encased 130 ft. well.  Another downside was that the well was placed on the first 1/3 of the property and I wanted to place my container home near the back.  I’m faced with running over 600-700 feet of water piping at a depth of roughly 18 inches, not to mention running electricity to the wellsite from the house or roadway unless I remain off-grid (The electrical pole, oddly enough, is at the back of the property).

After talking to the land owners (a small, local real estate company), I discovered that they imposed building restrictions, too.  At this point, I was starting to feel disappointed, but after reading the details, the main restriction was that typical homes must be 600 sq. feet or larger.  I quickly did the math; each container was to be 40 x 8 = 320 sq ft x 2 containers = 640 square feet of home!  Although I was still mildly disgruntled that a “size requirement” existed at all (what if I only wanted one container?), at least I could eventually skirt this restriction and move ahead with my project unabated.

Within the other restrictions, it stated that any structures must maintain a similar appearance and be painted, unless modern siding was applied.  Well, I could certainly paint the exterior of the containers and had already planned to do so.  In fact, there are ceramic paints available that have an insulation r-factor of 3 or 4, helping to alleviate the common problem of installing enough insulation when building with such a narrow frame to begin with.

Finally, it stipulated that all construction projects were to be completed within 9 months of start date.  Again, I became disgruntled and slightly angry at the system.  Here I was, trying to build a home debt-free (other than the land purchase) and do the right thing, and it might take me longer than 9 months before I would call it complete and the system was working against me.  (I’m not that selfish; I understand the need and desire of neighbors to not stare at an unfinished construction project for 4 years.)

After thinking about it from a “typical home” perspective, I interpreted this restriction as meaning the home site should have 4 walls, a roof and a painted/finished exterior within 9 months.  Well, I could certainly do that in 9 months since the containers already come with 4 walls, a stout wooden floor and a nice metal roof.  Could I paint a container in 270 days?  I was positive I could accomplish that and decided to move ahead with the land purchase.  Nevermind the fact that I planned to use a bit of “wiggle room” when it came to the restrictions’ definitions and interpretation.  I would leave the shipping containers in place to appear as storage while I slaved away inside to install framed walls, plumbing, and electrical wires, before finally working on the exteriors.

In fact, with the design and layout of the land being so long and back from the roadway, most people would barely notice the shipping container sitting there.  Most would assume it was simply a container or shed.

Furthermore, as I researched the land and county requirements, I discovered that this particular county did not require building permits if outside the incorporated towns and city limits.  Perfect!  Not only would I be able to work in peace, but I would not have to deal with pesky permits and inspections from jack-booted thugs.  You see, in many locations, you must ask the local government for permission to build a structure – any structure over 100 sq. ft.  – and if they do not like your design or plan or if they are having a bad day, then you will not be building anything.

With this particular land company, they offered to finance the cost of a new septic to be installed.  Sure, they are charging me a hefty interest fee, but there is no early pay-off penalty and that’s the way Americans get things accomplished, right?  Credit!  Ehh…

I close the land deal in a few days and will post updates along the way.  Right now, I am still in the planning stages but trying to move very quickly although I do not have a large budget. (Editor’s Note, January/2013: Have owned the property for several years now, have containers on site, carport built, and a manual water pump installed)

In the next update, I will be including pictures of the land, well site, and container.

I am asked many times about the cost of building with containers, running pipe, roads, etc., and so I thought I would include a rough estimate of what I face with my particular property; your prices may vary.

– Shipping container  -a 20 foot container cost me $2,650, with delivery included from over 200 miles away.  Your costs may vary, but if you do not live in a state with a major port, chances are this will be the average price for a quality container.

– Roughing in a dirt road and a 20′ x 40′ homesite, involving a tractor at a cost of $45/hour.  Initial estimate is 2 days worth of work, so roughly $700-800.  I eventually cleared my own homepad and leveled it with the aide of a family member’s small tractor and box blade.  I also roughed in a road, but it remains bumpy and uneven. I would recommend professional help with roadways to ensure a long, maintenance-free drive.

– A load of gravel to spread on the home site; additional gravel loads for part of the road at approximately $250 / 14 tons.

– At least 500′, if not 700 feet, of PEX 3/4″ flexible water tubing.  Cost is typically about $215 / 500‘, but I’ve been informed by several competent plumbers that I would likely want 1 inch or even 1 1/2 inch tubing in order to handle the eventual water demand of several faucets throughout the property (irrigation, gardens, showers, kitchen, etc.).

– 3/4 HP submersible pump, control box, and valves – $480; 150′ of 3-strand pump wire – $425

I have switched plans to a manual, off-grid water pump –

– Manual water pump from – total package price for 72 ft. of drop pipe (130 ft. well with static water at 25′), well assembly, etc. – $1,500.  Optional, add-on 12v motor for solar panels is approximately $850.

– Large water tank for gravity fed water system and/or storage, 1,200 – 2,000 gallons – $500-700

– 20-30 gallon water pressure tank (the Simple Pump can generate 100psi of pressure, so pressure tanks are no problem. If you go with a traditional, submersible electric pump, you’ll likely want a pressure tank, as well, unless you have a lot of head room for gravity assistance and don’t mind low pressure showers.) – $150

– Rental of a trencher or “ditch witch” to cut a 600 foot trench, 12″ wide x 18″ deep, in about 6 hours or less for the water piping– $149 / day.

Those are the basic, initial costs that you might run into for building your own shipping container homestead! I hope it helped some of you that are dreaming of going off-grid or building your own tiny home!

In the next article, I will also include some points about the pillar / pier foundation I will be using and how to deal with that.  Along the way, I will be documenting numerous DIY projects and hopefully create a “How to build a shipping container house” guide by the end of this series.

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