How Much Do Shipping Container Homes Actually Cost?

My son wants to move into his own house after he soon graduates from college. Since he will be starting a new life with a limited budget, I was wondering if building a shipping container home would be a good option for him. How much would it cost? Below is what I found out.

Shipping container houses costs an average of $290 US per square foot to build. So, a typical one or two bedroom / one bathroom house in two 40 ft high cube shipping containers would cost approximately $184,000. DIY’ers can save at least 50% and expect approximately $145 per square foot cost.

Estimating the construction cost of a shipping container home can be confusing and overwhelming with a lot of variables.

But, here is a straight forward way to estimate the cost of your shipping container home construction that works best.

Use the Construction Cost Calculator for Shipping Container Buildings

I am a register architect and wanted to know the best way to estimate the construction cost of a shipping container home for my son.

Doing this, I could also determine the average cost per square foot of any shipping container home.

So, I recently contacted four other registered architects, a structural engineer, a mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineer, six general contractors, a specialist who mass produces shipping container homes and a professional construction cost estimator.

From my discussions with them and studying each of their methods, I found out what works best for them when determining the cost of constructing buildings.

Then, I adapted their most tried and true methods into a tool that makes it quicker and easier to estimate the cost of constructing a shipping container building. Download your free tool at Construction Cost Calculator.

The House I Designed and Priced for My Son

630 SF One Bedroom / One Bathroom Home
Aerial Views of the Shipping Container House With and Without the Roof

In order to estimate the construction cost of a shipping container home, I needed to have a designed floor plan to review.

So, I designed a one bedroom / one bathroom house using two 40 foot long high cube shipping containers as you see in the images above.

The price of a two bedroom / one bathroom unit would be about the same cost per square foot since it is still within two 40 foot shipping containers. But, the bedrooms would be a lot smaller.

Since my son wanted a large bedroom with a queen size bed that has space to walk around the bed and he does not need two bedrooms for his first place to live, I designed the house to have only one bedrooms.

I figure that if I build this house in a desirable area, I can rent it out through Airnb or the like after my son moves out.

Free and Easy Way to Design Your Own Home to Price

Designing and drawing your own floor plan is easier than you might think. The above drawings were done with a program called SketchUp. Although I use the Pro version, you can download a free version at SketchUp Free.

SketchUp is easy to learn. Here is a a link to an awesome online tutor named Justin. I learned SketchUp by watching his YouTube videos. Better yet, start with his free beginner’s course at The Sketchup Essentials. Justin’s YouTube channel is at YouTube: The SketchUp Essentials.

Using the Floor Plan and Construction Cost Calculator

Let’s look at how I used the 630 SF one bedroom / one bathroom floor plan and the Construction Cost Calculator to figure out an accurate construction cost estimate as if I hired a general contractor to build the entire house.

Then, let’s look at how much I can save by doing a lot of the construction myself (and with help from my son).

The Cost Breakdown of a One Bedroom Shipping Container House

Here is a breakdown of the estimated construction cost for the design shown above. The unit costs can vary in your market.

The breakdown below follows the similar format that you will see at the Construction Cost Calculator. But, some of the line items were altered for the purpose of clarity in this article.

40 Ft. High Cube (One Trip) 2 Each $5,000 $10,000
Delivery of Containers 1 Each $2,000 $2,000
Crane 1 Each $1,000 $1,000
Dumpster 1 Each $4,000 $4,000
Storage on Site 1 Each $500 $500
Portable Toilet 1 Each $350 $350
Temporary Power 1 Each $300 $300
Tool/Equip Rental 1 Each $1,000 $1,000
Rough Grading 1 Each $500 $500
Trenching for Utility Hookups 1 Each $150 $150
Foundation Excavation 1 Each $500 $500
Foundation Footing Drains 1 Each $300 $300
Backfill 1 Each $500 $500
Compaction 1 Each $300 $300
Gravel 1 Each $600 $600
Topsoil 1 Each $500 $500
Finish Grading 1 Each $500 $500
Seeding/Sod 1 Each $400 $400
Planting, Landscaping 1 Each $500 $500
Stem Wall Foundation 156′-0″ LF $25 $3,900
Anchor Bolts, Hold Downs 8 Ea $100 $800
Slab insulation (M&L) 16 Sheets $90 $1,440
Exterior Foundation 122′-3″ LF $3.25 $400
Walkways and Patio 1 Each $5000 $5000
Steel beam 36′-0″ LF $208.33 $7,500
Metal Studs Walls (Mat’l) 150 Each $6.61 $992
Metal Stud Track Mat’l 40 Each $6.98 $279
Metal Studs Ceiling (Mat’l) 60 Each $6.61 $397
Nails, Screws, Fasteners 1 Each $500 $500
Labor (Walls) 197.45 LF $25 $4,936
Labor (Ceiling) 630 SF $7.50 $4,725
Walls 1678.25 SF $2 $3,356
Ceilings and Soffits 630 SF $2 $1,260
Roof 630 SF $7.5 $4,725
Floor 630 SF $7.5 $4,725
Wall 1,100 SF $7.5 $8,250
Vinyl Windows (Mat’l) 12 Each $200 $2,400
Install Windows 12 Each $800 $9,600
Exterior Doors (Mat’l) 2 Each $500 $1,000
Install Exterior Doors 2 Each $500 $1,000
Interior Doors (Mat’l) 3 Each $178 $537
Install Interior Doors 3 Each $172 $516
Door Hardware 1 Each $925 $925
Cabinets 5 Each $300 $1,500
Cabinet Hardware 1 LS $100 $100
Granite Countertop Kitchen 1 Each $815 $815
Granite Backsplash Kitchen 1 Each $250 $250
Granite Countertop Bath 1 Each $550 $550
Medicine Cabinet 1 Each $500 $500
Toilet Accessories 1 Each $150 $150
Interior Painting Walls 1679 SF $3 $5,037
Interior Painting Ceiling 630 SF $3 $1,890
Exterior Painting 1100 SF $2 $2200
Wood Flooring 434.4 SF $6.4 $2,780
Wall Base 1 Each $1000 $1000
Case Molding (Material) 1 Each $300 $300
Case Molding (Labor) 1 Each $800 $800
Carpeting 143 SF $4 $572
Ceramic Tile Floor 50.6 SF $9.9 $500
Ceramic Tile Walls 252.4 SF $11.37 $2,870
Service Panel 1 Each $450 $450
Rough Wiring 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Phone, Cable, Internet Wiring 1 Each $500 $500
Lighting Fixtures 1 Each $1,000 $1,000
Exterior Lighting 1 Each $750 $750
Devices: Outlets, Switches 1 Each $800 $800
Lighting Control Systems 1 Each $500 $500
Doorbell System 1 Each $100 $100
Smoke, CO2 Alarms 1 Each $150 $150
Electric Wall Mtd Fireplace 1 Each $750 $750
Drain/Waste/Vent 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Water Supply Piping 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Gas Piping 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Tankless Water Heater 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Kitchen Sink 1 Each $800 $800
Bathtub/Shower/Faucet 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Toilet 1 Each $1,000 $1,000
Bathroom Lavatory 1 Each $500 $500
Ductless Mini-split AC 1 Each $6,000 $6,000
SUBTOTAL $137,177
OH and Profit 22% $137,177 $30,179
Refrigerator 1 Each $600 $600
Gas Range/Oven 1 Each $1,500 $1,500
Microwave 1 Each $200 $200
Dishwasher 1 Each $1,000 $1,000
Washer/Dryer 1 Each $2,000 $2,000
Permits $2,000
Survey $1,500
Architect’s Fees $6,000
Engineer’s Fees $1,500

A Pitched Roof is Optional, but a Good Idea

Not included in the designed shipping container house above is a pitched roof. I wanted to keep it out of the budget.

Although it is not absolutely necessary to build a roof over the shipping container roof, it is a good idea to do so.

The flat top of the shipping container can puddle with rain, snow and sleet. This can cause long term damage upon the waterproof integrity of the shipping container top.

So, if you want a roof, or even a deck built on top of the shipping container house, then there would be an additional cost to doing that too.

Add approximately $9 per square foot to frame a roof.

Then, add another $6 per square foot to install an asphalt shingle roof over the shipping container.

So, the framing of the roof along with the roofing installed over the framing would cost at least $9,450 for a 630 SF shipping container house.

Building a deck on top of the shipping container will cost more because you will need to add structural supports, guardrails, stairs, etc. The price of a deck like this is dependent upon the scope of your design.

Septic Tanks and Wells Maybe Required Where You Build

The design above is assuming it is built with access to municipal water and sewage.

But, depending on where you choose to build your dream house, it might require the extra cost of drilling down for well water and/or installing a septic tank.

The average cost to drill for a well for potable water is around $5,500.

The cost of installing a septic system can range between $3,000 to $10,000.

So, like everything else, check with your local contractors to verify the costs where you choose to build.

DIY Construction Cost Saving Tips

Some of the items in the cost breakdown can be omitted if you want to do the labor yourself. That is, DIYing.

So, here is a list of items that you might be able to save by doing them yourself.

DIY Landscaping and Save $450 or More

The design example above shows a very low amount of $400 budgeted for planting seed and putting down sod for new grass and low greenery. The $500 for the planting and landscaping could also be a lot more.

But, you could cut the price in half by doing the labor yourself.

Although, let’s be real about what $450 will buy you. With that budget, your lawn will not be anywhere near as lush as the Schonbrunn Palace in Austria.

There are Savings You Can Find in the Cost of the Foundation

I designed my son’s house to rest upon a stem footing that continues all around the perimeter of the house. It also passes all along and underneath the joining of the two shipping containers.

The stem footing was selected because it will work well in the soil I plan to build the house upon. And, I like having a continuous barrier around the exterior perimeter of the house to prevent the crawling critters from making the underside of the house their home.

I can insulate under the house with a continuous stem footing better than other types of foundations too.

If the soil where you plan to build your house will allow it, you can use a pier foundation. It might be less expensive if it requires less material and labor than a continuous stem foundation that I used.

To get a better idea of what type of foundations there are available along with the pros and cons of each, go to the article about foundations.

Also, be sure to hire a structural engineer to design your foundation. The cost of a structural engineer is in my cost estimate breakdown above. It is a must and should not be cut out from your construction cost.

DIY the Framing and Save Over $9,600

The costs of the metal studs shown in the budget above is based upon Home Depot’s (a popular retail chain in US) price of 3-5/8″ 25 gauge metal studs that are 10 feet tall.

If you plan to use wood studs, be sure that they are straight and true. Too often, I have seen wooden studs stacked at the lumber yard that are so warped that they could be used as hockey sticks. They would not be good for framing walls and ceilings.

You could save a bit by buying 8 foot long studs for the ceiling framing. This way, you would not have as much waste.

Some builders prefer to use 20 gauge steel studs because they are not as flimsy to work with. But, at Home Depot, the 20 gauge studs are nearly twice the cost of the 25 gauge studs.

Also, you might find the cost of metal studs less expensive from a local building supply store that does not have as large of an overhead compared to a major national chain store like Home Depot or Lowe’s.

The savings are really in the labor costs. If you did the framing yourself, you would save at least $9,661 in the design example above.

Save 2/3 the Drywall Cost by Doing it Yourself

Gypsum board usually is sold in 4 ft x 8 ft sheets. Common thicknesses are 1/2″ (popular for ceilings) and 5/8″ (most common for wall and also for ceilings).

The design above was priced to have 5/8″ thick gypsum board for the walls and ceilings.

Home Depot is currently pricing their 5/8″ thick x 4 ft x 8 ft sheets at around $21 each. That’s $0.66 per square foot.

So, you can see that the main cost of installing drywall is in the labor.

You can save around two-thirds the overall cost of the drywall budget by doing the labor yourself. That would be a savings of $3,093 if you installed your own drywall.

Save $800 per Window by Installing Them Yourself

This $800 seems a bit high until you consider the labor and materials required to frame the opening for the windows.

You will need a lot more support around the window openings than just wood or steel studs.

Metal angle or metal square tube sections are often designed by structural engineers and welded together in order to strengthen the shipping container walls.

Are you ready to learn how to weld? Sounds fun to me. This can save you a bundle.

Installing your own windows can save you approximately $9,600 in the design example above.

Save $500 by Installing the Doors Yourself

Like the windows, the openings in the shipping container will need to be analyzed by a structural engineer. That engineer should advise you of what needs to be installed as framing around the openings for the doors (and windows).

Keep your welding goggles, helmet and gloves nearby. You are going to need them when framing the door openings after finishing the window openings.

The savings you will find by installing your own doors can be over $1,000 for the exterior doors and approximately $516 for all the interior doors in the design example above.

Install the Insulation Yourself and Save Thousands of Dollars

If you are going to have closed or open cell spray on insulation in your new shipping container house, then please have that done by professional who are experienced at doing that.

The design example above is budgeting closed cell spray on insulation.

But, if you want to install other types of insultation, then check out what other types of insulation is available, their R-Values, and how thick of insulation you will need at my blog post about insulation.

There will be a big savings by using some other type of insulation instead of spray on. But, as you will see at the above link about insulation, there are pros and cons of all types of insulation available.

The savings for using other types than spray on will not only save you on the cost of the labor by installing it yourself, but also on the materials.

For the purpose of getting a round number of savings, let’s cut off two-thirds from the budgeted amount of insulation above by using batt insulation while installing it ourselves.

That would be an approximate saving of $11,800 by installing batt insulation yourself instead of hiring professional to spray on closed cell foam insulation.

With all this said, I still would recommend saving in some other category and stick with the spray on closed cell foam insulation. It is simply the best choice for most shipping container home construction.

Save $150 per Kitchen Cabinet you Install Yourself

In the example above, there are 5 cabinets. That would mean that the savings of installing the kitchen cabinets yourself could be as much as $750 in the design example above.

What type of kitchen cabinets do you want? There are several grades of quality and detail available. You can save by choosing a more simpler and prefab set of cabinets.

If you are lucky, you might even find some being discarded from someone else’s remodeling job when they are being replaced with new cabinets at someone’s house.

While remodeling office spaces in NYC, I had the opportunity to pick up some cabinets that were being replaced in office’s kitchenettes. But, at the time, I didn’t have a need for them and nowhere to store them until I did.

Another way to save on kitchen cabinets is to not have any. I have seen some successful kitchen designs that only had a countertop supported by blocking and boards spanning along the walls to store pots, pans, plates, and cups.

Save Most of Painting Cost by Doing it Yourself. This is Huge!

The total amount budgeted for the material and labor to paint the inside an outside of this one bedroom shipping container house is $19,127.

Most of that dollar amount is for the labor involved.

So, let’s say you bought $800 of paints, primers, tape,brushes, rollers, and even ladders.

You still would save around $18,327 if you did all the painting yourself.

Installing Door and Window Case Molding Yourself Can Save You a Lot of Money

Case molding is what you install around door and window openings. It hides the rough gaps where the doors and windows meet the unfinished walls.

Moldings come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. You can really spend a lot when buying moldings for your home. So, you may need to be selective when looking for less expensive moldings for your house if you are working with a tight budget.

The example above is based on using molding that is bought is packages of 5. Each piece is 84″ (7′-0″). This is about the height of most doors. Although many residential doors are 80″ (6″-8″) high.

A 5 piece package would just about frame one door, front and back that is 36″ wide and 6′-8″ high. Currently, the package I was looking at costs around $26 at Home Depot.

If you were to install the door and window case molding yourself, then you would save around $800 in the example above. This is not a lot compared to the savings in other categories. But, it all adds up.

Install Floor and Wall Finishes

In the design example above, it is estimated that there would be savings to install the carpet, wood floor, tile floor and tile walls would be around $4,00 by doing yourself.

Leave the Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing Work to the Professionals

It is a lot safer for licensed contractors to perform all of the tasks involved in the installation of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing items.

And, in many municipalities, it is required to have licensed contractors do these tasks.

So, no DIY savings expected in this category.

Is it Worth Saving the Cost of Hiring an Architect?

The estimated cost of hiring an architect in this project is $6,000. If you want to design and draw your own house plans, then you can save that fee.

But, a word of caution, before you decide not to hire an architect, read this article first at Do You Need and Architect?

The Total DIY Savings

Install Landscaping ($450)
Install Framing ($9,600)
Install Drywall ($3,093)
Install Windows (9,600)
Install Doors ($1,516)
Install Insulation ($11,800)
Install Cabinets ($750)
Painting ($18,327)
Install Molding ($800)
Install floor and wall Finishes ($4,000)
Be Your Own Home Designer ($6,000)
DIY SAVINGS ($65,936)
Previous Construction Cost Estimate $137,177
Adjusted Construction Cost Estimate $71,241
GC’s OH and Profit at 22% $15,673
Subtotal $86,914
Adjusted Soft Costs $5,000

DIY Savings Can Be Significant

If the designed one bedroom shipping container house was built by a general contractor, I would expect the total project cost would be $183,656.

If the homeowner did a lot of the work themselves while the general contractor did select items, it is estimated that the adjusted project cost would be approximately $91,914.

The savings would be $183,656 – $91,914 = $91,742.

This shows that if you were to do a lot of the design and construction work yourself, you might be about to cut the expected project cost in half.



by Larry Lane