3-2-1… GO! Instant Shipping Container House!

7 Oct


As I sit here, toiling over Shipping Container Home plans, I’m reminded that things are getting tough all over…

As you know, we’re having a really hard time getting past all the bureaucrats that decided to stick their noses into our little project. So, we’re stalled out and our patience is wearing thin. So, I’m helping some other families achieve their housing goals, by lending them my considerable insights and insanity…  🙂

A build I’m working on in the Carolina’s is going up and down so fast you’d think that it was a roller-coaster.

In the beginning, we thought to build a rather contemporary home, that in my view was destined to come an ISBU landmark.

But “things happen” and budgets change, and rules have to be followed (damn those Planning and Zoning Nazi’s!) and at some point, it comes time to re-access, and try to figure how to get a house up, before the snow falls…

You start every build thinking about “Champagne and Bling…” but somewhere along the line, you’re reminded (usually by your significant other or your accountant) that you’d better aim for “Beer and Pretzels“.

So, I started thinking about how you could get a house up, in a time period of about 3 months, that had the potential to house a small family. Now, remember, according to “Ronin’s Rules“… that house has to be affordable, sustainable, and energy efficient.

It has to supply all of the primary needs;

  • Shelter from storms
  • Warmth and Cooling
  • Nice traffic flow
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Potential for Power Production
  • Low Maintenance
  • Provide ample storage, and
  • Provide the potential for expandability

Okay, we can do this…

Now, we need about 1,000 square feet, to start out. And, we’re not made of money, so let’s set the budget at around $50,000. That’s the price of a new car, if you can keep yourself from driving into the local Mercedes Benz Dealership.

According to a study I just read:

$50,000 is about a fourth of the cost of a new entry-level “starter home”, in today’s market, in most of America.

The goal here is to build a 2 bedroom, 1 bath home that will provide all of the goals we ‘ve noted, for under $300.00 a month.

Lemme see… $50,000.00 at 6%, over 30 years… is $299.78.

“But…” you say, you can’t get a loan. In fact, everyone in America seems to be in that boat.

You can if you have “equity.” Equity is the amount of money you already have invested in your property, based on it’s current appraisal. It’s the amount that you “don’t owe.”

And, we’re going to aim it so that this little beauty appraises out at about $109,000.00!

That’s about $115 a square foot, the national average for “appraisal footage”, in this category of homes.

So, the day you move in, you’ve made $59,000.00. Naturally, you’ll use that equity, to establish a $50,000 loan. Who’s laughing now? Huh?

Oh yeah, and we need a piece of ground to set it on.

Piece of ground acquired, and budget in mind, how can we do this? After all, what we’re building is a glorified “starter home.”

Here’s what I wanted:

I wanted the family to be able to build this home, out of pocket.  It’s a young married couple, with one child, a little girl.


No, they didn’t have a bake sale! Can you imagine how many cupcakes you’d have to sell, to pay for a home-building project? Oy! 😉

They have about $35,000 in savings (after they sold off one of their cars). A relative died, and they got the car. So, their bank account gets a “Detroit Infusion“.

They have “In-Laws” who generously agreed to donate $15,000 each, to help them get the house going. And, they had a piece of ground with a nasty trailer sitting on it, just begging for demolition.

The property already has a good well.

So, we have an acre and a half of land with good south exposure, all the water we need, and $65,000.00 to build with.

It’s time to buy some boxes…

We found a trio of boxes for $1,500 each, plus shipping. They are 40′ High Cube Shipping Containers, and they’ve only been used twice, as near as we can tell. They hauled a load of fabric from China to the Eastern Seaboard the last time out. They’re located in Savannah, GA.

Through a fleet transport broker, we found a guy who has cargo to move from Savannah to Columbia. It’s a huge load of furniture. It’s enough that he can fill several boxes with his gear. The furniture guy will load the containers onto flatbeds and haul his crap north!

This is better still! The building site is nearby. Actually, it’s just outside a small town…

So, we get this guy to use our boxes to haul his stuff to Columbia and then we truck the boxes from Columbia to the building site, a distance of about 80 miles. These are empty boxes and we can actually pull them behind a big Ford F350 Diesel Pickup… which the family just happens to have access to…

So, we have (3) 40′ ISBUs, and no shipping costs, except gas… um…er… diesel. Okay, we’re gonna use some fuel, but it’s a far better cry, than paying over  $700 each, to have them delivered to us, via tractor trailer.

But, can you actually build a home out of three ISBUs’ that will comfortably house a family?

We’ve all seen this Adam Kalkin – Quik House floorplan:

3-ISBU-FirstFloorPretty nice, huh? But wait a minute… where do you sleep?

3-ISBU-SecondFloorOh yeah… if you want to SLEEP in this house, you have to add a second floor!

Now, I’m not bashing this plan at ALL.

In fact, I’d live in it, myself (with a few “twists”). But THIS HOUSE will cost you a lot more than $65,000. In fact, this house, as cool as it is, will cost you almost $200,000 before you’re through, in most marketplaces.

If I had $200,000 to build with, I might consider it… But, I don’t. I have $65,000 bucks. Remember?

I need to build a house to shelter a small family, that may (and most probably will) grow larger.

Hey, I just had another child… and I’m 50 years old. It CAN happen! 🙂

No, smarty-pants, it didn’t involve a mailman, or an appliance repair guy…  At least I don’t think so… Hmmm… 🙂

Not only do we need to get this house up fast, we need to provide the owners with the potential for expansion.

I’m thinking something like this:


I know, it’s not as pretty as Adam’s plans… Sheesh, everybody’s a critic!

Here’s the deal;

We lay three 40′ ISBU’s side-by-side. We haven’t decided on a foundation yet, but I suspect it will simply be three “footed” walls 24′ wide, 1′ wide, and 5′ high, spaced 20′ apart, on center.

Now, those walls will start below grade, so we’re only lifting the boxes up a foot or two.

Oh yeah, by doing this, we don’t have to do a massive site prep plan. And, if we want a taller crawlspace underneath, we just pour the walls a foot or two higher.

Boxes in place, we have a 24′ x 40′ x 9.5 shelter. Almost 1,000 square feet. 960, to be exact. Now comes the fun part. We gut the interior walls out. Practically all of them will go. Depending on final design, the bathroom and the kitchen may still have a partial corrugated steel wall. But, you won’t see them.

The drawing is pretty self-explanatory. What it doesn’t show is the ability to add access to a second floor, if necessary. For instance, you could add a “loft ladder” to the bathroom hallway, opposite the bathroom door.

You see, later, I’m thinking that they’ll build UP, onto the “roof terrace”, and take that entire back section, to build a nice Master bedroom, right over the two lower bedrooms.

The lower bedroom closets will have to be reworked, but that’s not that hard to do.

“What? No tub in the only bathroom? Ronin, are you crazy?”

Relax… keep reading. 🙂

Our family got a Steam Shower as a gift from a relative who installed it, and then hated it.

Whaa? How in the world can you hate a steam shower? He must be nuts!:)

And, showers take less water than a tub bath, x the number of occupants. We’re fetching our own water via that well outside, so we’re going to conserve it.

Anyway, because the family stressed that they only take showers, we can put a hot tub up on the roof, for those times when Mom and Dad need to soak under the stars.

It’ll be “quality time”.

The roof (planned to be accessed by a “u-shaped” wooden staircase outside) will be large enough for our “solar farm” (solar and photovoltaic panels), a nice terraced space, plus a cool little landscaped area used to get away from the kid(s).

We’re talking about a “parental oasis” possibly.

And Later… that new Master bedroom won’t interfere too much – they’ll just have a cool deck outside their bedroom, with a hot tub on it. The solar and photovoltaic panels will re-mount to the awning roof.

And here’s the cool part;

Remember, they started with $65,000.00. $35,000 was theirs… and $30,000 came from the “In-Laws”.

You build the house for $50,000.00.

Yes… $50 Grand. How? Well… we’re gonna use some volunteer labor. It’s nice to have relatives that are construction workers, plumbers, and electricians.

That means that you still have $15,000.000 left over.

Hey, as Billy Mays used to say… “But wait… there’s more!”

  • We’ll use government programs to help offset the cost of the solar and photovoltaic systems.
  • We’ll use that new Cash for Clunkers Appliance package, to help pay for appliances.
  • We’ll apply for a Government grant to actually help build the house.

That’ll bring in about $28,000.00 to go back in the bank.

We found a grant that will help families build a home, to the tune of about $15,000.00. It’s a grant. No pay back. ZERO! That, plus the existing energy and appliances packages available will yield at LEAST $28,000.00.

That means that you have $43,000.00 in your hot little hands. But, it’s a good idea to pay back “you know who” or you’ll never hear the end of it… trust me.

There goes $30,000.00!

You’re back to $13,000.00. So, you’re only out of pocket $22,000.00 so far… IF you stuck to the budget as closely as you could.

I’m betting that you only have about $5,000 left over. 🙂

After they get their appraisal and their certificate of occupancy, they can take a loan out on that house, that equals any equity they created. I’m betting it will be way over $50,000.00.  That means that they’ve immediately paid back the “In-Laws” and they still have money for decorating.

They have a brand new house, brand new appliances, enough power production to offset the majority of their power bills, and money in the bank.

They apply for, and get that $50,000 Home Equity loan. The payment is $299.78. Remember?

So, cash in hand, we pay some bills. In fact, we pay ALL of them. This way… “Nervous Nellie Nana” can just shut the heck up about carrying a bunch of debt… 🙂

This family is going to make a mortgage payment now, but it’s only $300.00. That’s far less than rent for a comparable space.

And, they can add on, later.

Is America great , or what?

After we ‘final’ the designs, I’ll talk about exactly how we’re going to accomplish this.

The Renaissance Ronin

If you’ve enjoyed the blog, learned from it, or just found yourself entertained, please consider contributing a few bucks to it, to help us keep it up and running. We started doing this, so that we could share information, as we tried to save our family. Every penny counts, and we really need the help.

And… Stay tuned for another exciting episode of:

“What’s that ‘Container idiot ‘ up to, NOW?”

16 Responses to “3-2-1… GO! Instant Shipping Container House!”

  1. Jason October 18, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Love these houses. I want to build one.

    The most expensive part is probably the building lot with municipal utilities.

    • renaissanceronin October 18, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

      Hi Jason…

      Can you say… “off-grid?” 🙂

      The hardest part about these homes, is actually getting the go-ahead to put one in your neighborhood.

      That legal battle can easily exceed the price of that lot in the ‘burbs’ and the utility connections…

      It’s why most of my builds are located either in “THE COUNTY” (as opposed to “the city”), or COMPLETELY “OFF-GRID.”


  2. Jason October 18, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    I am looking into this .. 🙂

    • renaissanceronin October 18, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

      Prepare yourself for whatever happens… 🙂

      It can be a ride bumpier than any Disney Theme Park Rollercoaster!

      Good Luck!


  3. Zach Landrum October 31, 2009 at 5:17 pm #

    Hey Ronin,

    My girlfriend and I have recently started following your blogs on container homes, as it’s something i’ve been looking into to design and build.

    We live in Upstate South Carolina (Greenville) and I was curious if you ran into any/major problems with zoning and building permits? We’re in the beginning process of designing our home. Drafting, then quoting out all the work needed to complete the house. This will be our first home and are tired of looking at pieces of junk “fixer-upper” houses that will cost more than $50,000 in repairs, and won’t qualify for a FHA loan. Anywho, I enjoy and appreciate you writing about your process in these builds.


    • renaissanceronin October 31, 2009 at 5:45 pm #


      When you read the posts (and keep reading them), read the comments too…

      The SINGLE MOST DIFFICULT part of an ISBU homes isn’t the construction. It’s the AUTHORITIES! This isn’t a “local” issue, it’s a”national” one.

      If that wasn’t the case, my own home would have been finished months ago, and my family would be safe.


  4. Rodney pendleton December 31, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    Thanks for the info,

    I love the Blog too.

    I just purchased two 40 foot containers for 1300 a piece to put on a piece of land i purchased for 40k.

    I was wondering about this grant that your couple got and could you link the government website that you got it from.

    Or just send me an email on where to get information on something like that.

    I appreciate it.

    Thanks again

    • renaissanceronin January 1, 2010 at 1:55 am #

      You know Rodney, I get asked this question about three times a week.

      So, I tell you what I’ll do. I’m going to write a blog post series about “searching for, applying for, and then getting, a Federal Grant.”

      Look for it in the next two weeks.

      Until then, you can start your grant search here:



  5. Jake Jones January 14, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

    Hey, great blog!. How do I subscribe to your RSS feed to ensure I get notifed when you make new posts? Thanks

    • renaissanceronin January 15, 2010 at 10:37 am #

      Welcome Jake,

      There’s a feed button, and a subscribe button as well, at the top of this page. Either will provide a link to the blog.


  6. Tom Mullinax, AIA January 23, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    I have been drawing out container house plans for months. My intent is to construct an earth sheltered house out of 3 of them and have some interesting designs for that. I’m also located in the Carolinas and would love to see what you’re doing. The challenge is waterproofing the “connecting” seam between the 3 units. Conversations with a well-known container architect in Australia verifies that the steel will support an earth covering. With that natural insulation and 1 long wall of insulated windows, it seems pretty easy to maintain a comfortable temperature. A series of coil rolled metal garage doors will make it a secured place that will survive just about anything from intruders to forest fires. A spring on the site, a couple of solar panels and we’ve got a completely off-grid paradise. It’s great that others are seeing the value of reusing discarded “trash” to enrich the lives of others. Thanks for your help for Cathy. I’m going to PayPal now to help. I hope others will.

    • renaissanceronin January 23, 2010 at 10:41 am #

      Hi Tom,

      First, thanks for the support! We really appreciate it.

      And, thanks for the news on your ISBU project. I’m assuming that you’ll build a retaining wall system to hold back the earth around your home? Those berms aren’t sitting in direct contact with the containers, right?

      Waterproofing is a job, especially in a build like yours, but I’m sure you’ve got it licked.

      Contrary to what that Aussie tells you, I’d be careful about covering a container with earth without reinforcing it. After 30 years of doing this, I can tell you that it’s not going to work, unless you build a reinforced roof to carry that soil load. Remember, it increases in weight with the weather. Exponentially.

      I’ve both seen and documented MANY “underground” ISBU’s fail.

      You might give George Runkle a call, at Runkle Consulting, in Georgia. He’s a structural engineer with a LOT of ISBU experience.

      Beyond that, it sounds like a cool project. I’ve even used those metal garage doors as “movable walls” to open the lifespaces up during nice weather, especially in bedrooms. “Rolling” truck doors are also a good fit. Stable, secure, and sturdy.

      You can also build your decking in panels that can be tilted up “toward” the house, to help secure it or even protect the glass during heavy weather events. The gaps in your decking let a little light in, too. A few pulleys premounted on rafter tails will do the trick.

      I often do this, and then install coil doors ‘outside’ that, to provide two layers of protection, Perfect for securing a vacation home that gets closed up in the off-season.

      Your place sounds great!

      Let me know if I can help…

      And again, from the bottom of my black little heart… 😉

      Thanks for YOUR help.

      By working together, we ALL get stronger.


  7. James Scott March 19, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    Hey there !

    Do you have any suggestions as to how to secure a loan for building a shipping container home. I am single…potential first time home owner, and have very little money. It appears that USAA will not hand out loans for these types of structures due to small number in existence…..nor will they do it for Earth homes. Go figure.

    Any suggestions ?

    I just came across your blog and have really enjoyed what I have read so far ! Thanks for posting this !


    • renaissanceronin March 20, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

      Can you find conventional money for an “Alternative Home?”

      The simple answer is; “Usually, NO.”

      Alternative Housing,” be it straw bale, shipping container, earth bag, you name it…

      … is providing an opportunity for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a home, to actually dream about having one. But it’s not without it’s perils and pitfalls.

      But the trick is in figuring out how to afford them, in the first place.

      That paperwork on your house that you’re trying to build out of “trash, recycled materials, and repurposed boxes” isn’t what bankers are used to seeing cross their desks.

      How many ISBU shipping container homes, insulated with SPF or densely packed “blown-in blue jeans,” have sold in your neighborhood in the last year?

      For most of us, that number is probably ZERO.

      For that very reason, banks are very wary of these homes. In most cases, the option for a conventional building loan, one that converts to a mortgage, just isn’t going to be there… because there is nothing “conventional” about what’s inside your walls.

      “The biggest problem for anyone trying to build an “alternative home” isn’t it’s design… it’s the financing.”

      In my soon to be released book on Container Home Building, I address this with an entire chapter that talks about “the pitfalls,” and “the possibilities…”

      There are avenues, you just have to know where to look for them.

      Stay tuned.

      • Yvette March 30, 2010 at 9:12 am #

        Hi can you send me information on where to buy your book when it comes available? Do you have an est. date?
        Blessings, Yvette

        • renaissanceronin March 30, 2010 at 9:19 am #

          Hi Yvette!

          My book: “Container Home Building” is going to be an “E-book.” That means that you’ll be able to actually download it in PDF format, to read with Adobe Reader, which you can get for free.

          I’d hoped to get it out sooner, but health issues within my family delayed it. We’ll begin pre-selling the book April 15th. Early buyers of the book will get a pretty steep discount and several bonus goodies…

          Thanks for asking!


Comments are closed.