Introduction: How to Get a Shipping Container

Picture of How to Get a Shipping Container

Steel shipping containers are an interesting, quick, and cost-effective way to install a robust, portable building in your yard, on your flatbed trailer, or at your business. You can also stack them (8+ tall at sea, in hurricanes), transport them inexpensively, and create an instant rooftop deck.

Like other industrial detritus, metal shipping containers can be a bit difficult to find and move. This instructable will help you find containers for sale and obtain one — or ten.

You can learn more about containerization and its impacts in this fascinating Wikipedia article.

This is the first entry in a (long) series I'll do on converting a shipping container into an off-grid, open-source, affordable house. If you enjoy it please consider supporting my Kickstarter project and/or forwarding it on.


Step 1: Research Regulations

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If you're going to go through the trouble of placing a metal box that weighs several thousand pounds in your yard, you should start by making sure your local code enforcers aren't going to promptly make you move it.

As of this writing, I live in Austin, Texas. Codes vary substantially from place to place, so you'll have to verify for your own locale what the deal is.

Here's how I found out I'd (probably) be enforcer-free:

  1. google: Austin city building code
  2. click on first result, go to some Austin city webpage
  3. click on 'frequently asked questions' then 'inspections and permits' then 'permits' then 'do i need a permit?'
  4. sweet! under 'work exempt from permits':

"Building One-story detached accessory structures, provided the floor area does not exceed 200 square feet (18.58 m2). Please keep in mind that although you do not need a permit to build or install the structure you must still abide by any zoning rules and regulations in regards to height, setbacks and trade permits. If you decide to install electricity or plumbing systems into the structure you will be required to obtain those trade permits. Please visit the ‘Zoning’ page to find out what which regulations apply to your home in regards to structure height and/or yard setback areas."

I want to make sure I'm ok on my planned rooftop deck, so on to the zoning page. Yikes: forget it. I'll just do it and take my chances. I think I'm supposed to be at least 5 feet from my neighbor's fences or something.

If you can't avoid zoning issues through an exemption, you're in for a process. Check out what others have done for inspiration/examples. The good folks of The Shipyard, a collection of workspaces consisting largely of shipping containers in Berkeley, California, have been so kind as to publish their use permit details. You can check it out here.

Step 2: Decide Which Container You Want

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There are several different container sizes and styles to choose from.

Wikipedia has more detail, but I'd boil it down to 2 choices of common sizes:

  1. 20' length: 8' wide, usually 8.5' tall. weighs ~5,000 lb.s
  2. 40' length: also 8' wide and usually 8.5' tall. weighs ~8,000 lb.s

Other sizes, especially other heights, are available, but these are by far the most common and typically the cheapest per cubic foot.

Both sizes are available with a 'refrigerated' option. While this may be tempting to save yourself the trouble of insulating later on, they cost thousands more and I decided it wasn't worth it.

Step 3: Plan Your Layout

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When you know what size you're working with, you can start to plan how/where you're going to use it.

I like sketchup for doing this: it's free, integrates with google earth, and there's already a model of a shipping container for you to adapt.

I used sketchup to generate this initial model for my adaptation. Here's video of a flyaround:

Step 4: Find Your Container

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There's the easy way, the hard way, and 2 tricks:

  • Easy way: Google "shipping containers for sale" and buy one via a nationwide broker, ebay, or a local reseller. Expect to pay at least $1,900+ for a 20' and $2300+ for a 40', delivered.
  • Hard way: figure out how to buy abandoned/damaged containers directly from a shipyard. I researched this a bit but stopped after hearing of a probable requirement for a commercial driver's license. If you figure this out, please comment and let me know.
  • Trick #1: search for conex on craigslist instead of shipping container. This is another term for the same thing, but plenty of people don't know to search for it. Some container sellers, like the guy I bought mine from, show up if you search for conex but not if you search for shipping container.
  • Trick #2: if buying from a dealer, be clear that you don't need a cargo-worthy container, just one that's watertight. Cargo-worthy often refers to whether the metal channels on the bottom are straight to within an inch or something excessive; this is important for container-moving machinery but probably doesn't matter to you. Before realizing this, I was quoted prices $300+ higher.

Some places also offer a rent-to-own option, but you'll pay substantially for it. The cheapest I found was over 20%, and they might not be happy to find you customizing their container before you're done paying for it :)

In mid-2010, I paid $1,300 for my 20'x8'x8.5' container including delivery to my yard in East Austin, and I consider this an exceptionally good price. Please comment if you find a replicable way to get them as cheap or cheaper.

Prices are this low in the U.S. because of our trade deficit: we export far less stuff than we import, and it's costly to ship back an empty container. Of course, these prices are also volatile with the price of the steel they're made from.

Step 5: Move, or Have It Moved

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If you're having it delivered to your location, have your site clear and then clear it some more: no joke, the guy who delivered mine banged into my fence as well as my neighbor's before bumping a rafter of the house!

If you're smart, congratulations: you've already got a slab or some easy foundation set up and can just have your new building dropped off perfectly. If you're like me, you haven't planned enough and will want to quickly scrounge some thick round material (think telephone poles) to set the container on for easier future adjustments. I used ~6" diameter round wood poles.

If you're going to fully move this trailer yourself or want to keep it portable, you're going to be entering the world of flatbed trailers. 16' utility flatbeds might be a feasible option for 20-footers, and they appear to be widely available on craigslist for ~$1,200. There are also DIY kits for the more brave and old car parts for the truly hardcore.

Winches, come-alongs and any other mechanical helpers will be your best friends during this process and later adjustments. Ideally, anchor to something much stronger than this tree stump and use the strongest electric winch you can get your hands on.

Step 6: Revel Upon Your New-found Metal Box

Picture of Revel Upon Your New-found Metal Box

While I've done little to convert the container since getting it into my yard about a year ago, it has made a great rooftop deck, garage and conversation piece. Good luck getting your own big metal box; please comment with pictures as you go!


nken wagnelle fu - (author)2017-11-09

yes. may i be contact for your consideration:

needtogetmysoulfree (author)2017-08-04

I spent 27 years as an iron worker, certified welder , and heavy rigger. I now hold a C.D.L. and drive for a living. I want to build sustainable communities when I retire. I have seen where you can purchase conex boxes for as little as $39 . There is no limit to what I can do with these. I want to help people break free from employers and low wages.

where can you get them for 39 dollars? we could potentially build an entire community if youre serious.....

atombomb4. (author)2017-10-06

i am in need of a few. i want to build my home out of them.i have plans drawn is just finding some cheap.any places to start looking?im in ny

dan3008 (author)2017-01-25

Im going to be buying my first house soon (I hope, I made my first offer last week) and one of these in my new garden would make moving and decorating a doddle. I could keep funiture and everything in there during the move and renovation...

MikeS425 (author)2016-05-24

I need a container

BeckyM71 (author)MikeS4252016-10-05

Mike if you still need a container I can help you find one. I have access to several right now. Email me or call me 281-259-8550 email:

DavidC986 (author)BeckyM712016-12-05

can you email about thoughs shipping containers

My email is

Pa1963 (author)2015-11-15

Can anyone explain why the price of these keeps going up? I live in the L.A. area, and the ports have more of these than they can ever get rid of. I know they have scrap value, yet prices seem to climb regardless of scrap prices. At 5cents a pound for steel scrap, a 5000lb container would only be worth $250 max. And there are so many stacked up at the ports, they can't be worth any more than that,

Shipped (author)Pa19632016-05-19

Only a container with major damage is worth scrap prices. All those containers you see at the port are in route to other destinations. Much like a parking lot has lots of cars that eventually go to other places those same cars are also not worth scrap prices... If you want to see what a real scrap container looks like, click here and scroll a bit down to "D grade DAMAGED containers".

bfitzpatrick2 (author)Shipped2016-11-18

Beyond that the Secondary, Circular economy surrounding shipping containers: off-grid efficiency housing, Storm Shelters, Pop-up stores like These for Starbucks , is driving the up as well.

DanielleN18 (author)Pa19632016-05-14

Hi Pa1963!

I just move to L.A from France and I am very interested in getting a shipping container and use it to build a home. Can you help me with some information on L.A's building regulations regarding the containers? or where I can find those information.

Did you get your container? how big and how much did you get it?

Thank you very much for your help.


Michael M1 (author)2015-11-05

Can anyone direct me in how or who might donate a shipping container. I'm a volunteer firefighter/emt for a small Eastern Nebraska town. We are seeking a container or 2 to use for live fire training. Any info would be much appreciated.

My email is

MikeS425 (author)Michael M12016-05-24

Any luck ?

NathanDavidson (author)2016-04-20

I would love to own one to create a storage shed in the backyard. Nobody can resist that additional space to store everything you can find around the house – from tools to knick-knacks all the way to food products. However, I have done some research and found that shipping just a single container would cost even more than the steel slab itself. Hence, until I can find a willing trailer driver who can help me to haul one container over, I think I would just keep it as an impossible dream.

KatarinaM2 (author)2016-01-06

hello . Anyone that have any good ideas how and where to find a cheap container in Tanzania, or how I can get one and cheap transport???

LoganL9 (author)2015-11-16

I recommend checking out Saf-T-Box (especially if you're in Texas). I've worked with them for construction projects in Houston and San Antonio and have been pleased each time. Check 'em out at

iFirefly (author)2015-08-23

Found at:

TRIU1924017 - 20' Dry Van Container (D2)

Status : Retired1st move from factory (Local) : 02-Feb-1996Manufacturer : QUICHistoryInterchange Type Retired Direct Interchange Lease OutOn Hire Date (Local) 31-Jul-2006 25-Nov-2002Release # RSELC00194On Hire Port SeoulOn Hire Depot KUKDONG Total LogisticsOff Hire/Retired Date (Local) 22-Oct-2009Redelivery #Off Hire PortOff Hire DepotContract MAEX48-200000 MAEX65-200000Customer Maersk Line A/S Maersk Line A/SInterchange Sequence


TRIU1924017Internal DimensionsWeight & PayloadFloorCargo Lashing SystemVentilationExternal DimensionsWidth: 2438 mmHeight: 2591 mmLength: 6058 mm
MODSintl (author)2015-08-16

Great tips! The first tip is extremely important since local codes greatly vary. We've never ran into an issue with any of our structures.

EricB12 (author)2015-07-30

Great purchase, and good find. Trust me, you will enjoy it for years to come. There are so many things you can do with an old shipping container that is still in good shape for the most part. I plan on purchasing two in the nearer future so that I can use as a painting room. Of course, some work will have to be done to get it to that point, but I am up for the challenge.

Eric |

michaelmoore46 (author)EricB122015-08-08

Ericb12 I may have 2 shipping containers for sale if interested call me (812)568-3755

michaelmoore46 (author)EricB122015-08-08

I may have 2 shipping containers for sale. If you are interested my number is (812)568-3755.

spiceyweasel (author)2015-06-22

How fortuitous....I have a Class A CDL and have hauled containers for many years.

steinie44 (author)2015-04-19

Construction begins in Corktown on new housing units made from shipping containers

We're getting a sneak peak at a project that is using shipping containers to create new housing in Corktown. . . .

sam.kemp.777 (author)2015-04-19

We plan to store our dried Salmon and veggies in them!


mr.incredible (author)2011-06-18

How about if you completely coated the metal exterior with something to permanently rust proof it. (Maybe a tar based product) Dig a big hole and bury it. Make an underground house. It wouldn't be an eye sore to the rest of the world then.

I have a thing for underground houses lately. Insulation is perfect, cool in summer and warm in winter. You would have to put it in a location not prone to flooding. A customarily undesirable sloped lot comes to mind. One that isn't really useful to anyone traditionally building a house.

hackencoff (author)mr.incredible2015-04-02

I read that u cannot bury them cuz the sides will crumple under the weight of the ground pressure.

seanglover67 (author)hackencoff2015-04-16

No they won't. I was at a buddies house that had 5 of them buried in a T shape, 3 one way and 2 perpendicular at one end. It was about -15*F that day and with the geothermal heat, the inside of them was 50+or-. They're great bunkers

Pa1963 (author)mr.incredible2015-03-20

Make a good fraidy-hole in tornado country.

chome1 (author)mr.incredible2011-06-19

The is a lot of interest in burying a container as instant underground building but there are number of reasons that you should not do this including structural integrity and corrosion management.

There is a video that explores and explains all the issues here

CobaltB (author)2015-04-16

When I was living in South Korea, I saw whole houses built from these. One school where I was teaching was renovating and had placed about two dozen classrooms built from these on the property. There were little yards along the highway much like you see mobile home dealers here in the US, where you could buy houses made of them in all kinds of configurations.

DanielK22 (author)2015-04-16

If you have a long flat-bed trailer and a truck or a long enough flatbed truck that are strong enough to pull it and none of them are for hire (commercial). You should be able to haul one of them without a commercial license so long as the max height is less than 13 feet from ground to top of trailer. Think of it as moving your personal property.

Yes, you will need to make sure that your trailer does have working lights and that truck and trailer are up to the appropriate weight requirement.

Some local and some State laws vary a little.

cbrown31 (author)2015-03-21

Suggest looking into hiring one of the roll off dumpster carriers for delivery.

GrapeApe226 (author)2011-07-06

them suckers are between $1000 and $2000. Used containers are being sold for a reason. Most have damage or rust/corrosion. Usually on the top. You'll prolly have to weld some repair panels up there. Maybe build another roof above it. A friend made a car port lookin thing with a 4 foot space to keep the hot sun off it.

Here's my dream retirement complex....

Pa1963 (author)GrapeApe2262015-03-20

Looks like the Clinton Presidential Liberry.

Bubbamax (author)GrapeApe2262011-11-25

Wow!!! Cool pic! Where's that from?

Troyison (author)Bubbamax2014-06-25

It's an outdoor theater in Amsterdam.

@Amsterdamse Bos Gardens

redivulpis (author)GrapeApe2262011-11-23

Megaton? Very Cool =P

FogVision (author)2015-02-06

Redpanther you are awesome

JuanitaL (author)2015-01-30

Thanks so much for sharing this information! Your tips are awesome. Personally I feel like the google route would be easier, but I bet there are advantages to finding shipping containers at a shipyard as well.

<a href='' ></a>

redpanther made it! (author)2015-01-13

I found a way to move my own container without a CDL license by using:

You'll need a 3/4 ton truck with a gooseneck and brake controller.

I did not even need a forklift for loading or unloading!

A real slick solution!

Xinerama (author)2014-12-08

Thanks for the info. The CONEX word search tip was great. I'll come back and post pics when I get mine.

twitty.sean (author)2014-11-15

Looks like a good way to have myself my very own welding shop. I'll have to check into grounding it among a few other concerns, but at least it will not burn down from sparks.

GeekTinker (author)2014-11-14

My best advice is to subscribe to this blog:

The owner of it knows what he is talking about as he has built container homes for years. I would highly recommend that you get his book on the subject as well. I am not compensated in any way for promoting his blog or book. I have followed it for several years and it is still the best information available. When complete, the house looks like any other conventional house in the neighborhood, unless the owner wants it to look like it's made from a container.
I would also recommend the book "Mortgage Free" by Rob Roy. Building a Mortgage Free container home is my dream. Right now, I am still in the planning stages while I pay off debts and save up the money for the first phase.

RobC5 (author)2014-11-13

We are the leading storage company in the nation, with over 130 locations throughout North America. Mobile Mini offers a wide range of product sizes, types and accessories that’s unmatched by any other storage companies in the industry.

Our convenient services, patented security features, and all steel containers make us the smart choice for consumers and businesses to store the things that matter most.

CourtneyS1 (author)2014-11-12

Check us out

CourtneyS1 (author)2014-11-12

I sell Containers...

1. Good call to check city codes, we charge if we have to come out and pick the box back up. Although a lot of my customers prefer the Ask Forgiveness Not Permission route.

2. Very true, 40' standard height containers are on there way out so it will be 40'x 8.5'x 9.5' that is the norm.

4. The grades from the Port are IICL5 (best used containers) CW (next best, minor dents/dings clean) WWT (Dents/Dings smells...) AS IS (Holes) For that matter we have bought some WWT that had holes the depots do not take the time to rate these properly. ASK TO SEE THE BOX before it is delivered, if they say no they either do not own the box yet or don't want you to see it before it is in your yard and you have already paid for it. We definitely do not want you modifying containers you do not OWN out right.

5. That is crazy, you should ask that it is delivered on a tilt bed trailer!!! or RollBack for a 20'. We can usually get it within a foot of where you want it, however residential customers should keep in mind that these are not little trucks and space is required.

6. Love the handstand on top of the box. Glad you're happy with your box. :)

karen.b.stokes (author)2014-09-11

So I have bought 2 of these suckers, 40' long. I was happy as a clam with both of them, but the first one I bought apparently was used to transport oily machines, and smelled musty. Well, that musty smell got into EVERYTHING I had stored in there, including my furniture. I either had to throw it away, give it away, or burn it! I ended up with NO usable furniture, and all my books and collectibles were permeated with that stink! If I brought a book or 2 home, it stunk up the WHOLE house! There is NO WAY to get that stink out of anything! Now, since my husband died of cancer last year, I am stuck with cleaning out both of these containers on my off-grid 40 acres, and trying to sell the place so I can move back to Georgia. (I am in N. Arizona). I wish luck to any and all who buy one of these "cheap" containers.

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