Choosing the Right Kind of Storage Container for Your Cabin


Shipping containers are being used more and more in the construction of cabins and houses.  And for good reason.

If you’re looking into using shipping containers for you cabin you want to make sure you get it right.  You can save a lot of money buying a used shipping container.  And you’ll be helping out the environment since the alternative is for these containers to sit and rust.  Since they’re built out of durable materials, they last a really long time in landfills.

So great, you’re doing yourself and the planet a favor by considering a shipping container for your cabin.  But what kind of shipping container should you buy?  It’s actually pretty amazing how many options there are when you start researching.  The short answer is that whatever you buy will probably be just fine, except for a couple of things.  You want a container built out of Cor-Ten steel.  If it’s made from another material, don’t buy it for a cabin.  

You also don’t want one for sale “as-is” because that typically means that it’s in disrepair and won’t withstand the weather as well.  Let me walk you through the different options you should consider as you shop for a shipping container for your cabin.

Material

Get the material right.  Just because a shipping container is made out of steel doesn’t mean that it’s made from the right kind of steel.

The only material that you should consider for your shipping container cabin is called Cor-Ten steel (also known as weathering steel).  It’s the industry standard so finding a good price on a Cor-Ten steel shipping container won’t be hard.  Just make sure you check what the material is before you buy, because someone may be trying to pawn off a lower quality material shipping container on someone who doesn’t know better.

It’s not that shipping containers made from other materials are inherently bad or wrong.  Shipping containers were manufactured for decades using other materials that were protected from rust using paint.  But Cor-Ten steel stands up better to weather and is more resistant to harmful rust than other materials, even without paint.

So go with Cor-Ten.

Size

The size of container you should buy is totally up to you.  Larger containers are generally more expensive and are heavier and harder to transport.  This is an important consideration if accessing your cabin site requires driving on winding dirt roads.

As for what size options you do have, here is what you can typically find.

Most shipping containers are 8 feet wide.  You can, however, find extra wide containers that vary from 8 1/2 feet all the way up to 10 feet wide.  The widest containers aren’t as common so it’s likely that you’ll need to plan on an 8 or 8 1/2 foot wide container.

Common lengths for shipping containers are 20 and 40 feet.  As with width, there are customer length containers that vary from 10 up to about 48 feet long.  Extra wide containers are commonly available up to 48 feet long.  A regular 8 foot by 40 foot container will give you 320 up to square feet of living space.  But once again, remember that longer containers are heavier and harder to haul along winding roads.  Especially if you have to drive along several miles of switchbacks on ungroomed roads.  So take transportation into account as you shop for containers.

It might cost a little more, but you may find that it’s nicer to buy more smaller containers to build a modular cabin that you assemble on site.

Height

Obviously height goes along with size.  You basically have two options for shipping container height.

A standard height shipping container is 8 1/2 feet tall on the outside and just under 8 feet tall on the inside.  After adding some framing and drywall (if you go that route) you might end up with what feels like a low ceiling.  Especially if you’re accustomed to a standard 8 foot ceiling.

That’s why I recommend a High Cubed shipping container.  If you search “high cubed” you’ll find lots of container options with the taller 9 1/2 foot height.  You basically get a full foot of added height when you go with high cubed.  So when all is said and done, you’ll get a ceiling that’s more than 8 feet tall which will make your shipping container cabin feel a lot more spacious.

Condition

You can buy used containers in all sorts of conditions.  Here are some definitions to help you know what you’re looking at when shopping or a used container.

One Trip—One trip containers are going to be almost new in look and condition.  They’re basically a “like new” container that was used on a single trip across the ocean.  This is as close as you can get to buying a new container without actually buying a new container.

Factory Paint—If you see a factory paint label it means that the container hasn’t been refurbished and repainted.  This is actually a good thing.  The refurbished paint tends to have issues with peeling paint from rust that has been covered up.  Factory paint means that rust hasn’t just been covered up with fresh paint.

No Shipping Label—This actually means that there won’t be a big logo painted on the shipping container.  A no shipping label container is probably going to be a single color without other big markings.

Cargo Worthy—This means that a cargo surveyor has inspected the container and that it’s worthy of ocean cargo transport.  Basically, this should tell you that the container is in good enough condition to still be used for freight.

As-is—This usually means that there just isn’t a warranty.  In this case, a shipping container being sold as-is is usually the most used and worn out.  These containers are the most economical to be sure.  You’ll get a really low price on an as-is container.  But you may end up battling leaks and rust.  However, since there is a very large supply of these retired as-is shipping containers, you can get a great price on them.  If you go with as-is though, be picky.  You have a lot of containers to choose from so don’t buy one without inspecting it yourself or having someone else inspect it for you.

Wind-Water-Tight—This actually just means that the seller believes that the container is well-sealed.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s been inspected by a surveyor.  So don’t be misled to believe that a container described as wind-water-tight is actually certified as wind and water tight.

What condition you choose to go with will depend a lot on your budget.  As-is containers have been used by a lot of people in building shipping container cabins and houses.  They can definitely work.  And there is a very large supply of these that will continue to litter the globe if we don’t find other uses for them.  But you should do whatever is best for you when it comes to buying a shipping container.  Depending on your needs and preferences, going with something that’s almost new may be the right option as well.

Price

Price is probably going to be a factor in which container you buy.  My best advice here is to shop around.  Determine your price range and which of the factors above matter most to you.  Then take your time to find a good price on just the right container.

To give you an idea of what you should expect to spend on a used container, here are some guidelines.

The least expensive as-is containers usually start around $1,500.  If you find one for less than that, you may have found a great deal, but it’s also likely that you found a lemon.

Like-new or modified containers can usually be found in the $5,000 to $8,000 range.  So again, if you find a standard container selling for $12,000 it’s probably time to look elsewhere.  You may be getting ripped off.

As you shop for containers, eBay is actually a good place to start your search for used containers.  A lot of companies opt to auction off their used containers via eBay to get rid of them.  Also, if you live near a port or have a freight company in town you should try reaching out to shipping companies directly.  It’s likely that you can find a good price on a used container direct from a freight company.

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