Shipping containers are gaining popularity around the world for being low-cost, sustainable housing options. These durable containers are versatile and offer a great deal of construction possibility for much less than traditional houses. Even before prefab container homes were popular, homesteaders had their eyes on shipping containers as homes.
So, is it legal to live in a shipping container? The majority of US states allow residents to legally live in shipping container homes, but proper codes and regulations must be followed according to local jurisdictions.
Each state and county has its own regulations regarding construction, whether it’s a shipping container or a brick-and-mortar house.
In most cases, you cannot just start modifying any structure, including a shipping container, without a permit. There are also zoning laws and building codes to follow in order to make your shipping container legal.
Related: There are a lot of ins and outs that go into building a shipping container home, too much for these blog posts. If you need to dive deeper, get the bible on the subject, Shipping Container Homes For Beginners. They dive in deeper into the legalities as well as how to build.
Is It Up to Code?
“Is it legal?” isn’t really the best question to ask in terms of living in a modified shipping container. A better question to ask might be, “is it up to code?”, or “what permits do I need to build a shipping container home?”
Most states adhere to international building codes (International Residential Code and International Building Code being the two biggest ones), for any type of construction. Expect to abide by these overarching requirements no matter what type of home you are building.
But, after those main requirements, every state – even every county – has different building codes for determining if a space is ‘inhabitable’. Therefore, it is better to look at what is required and see if you can construct or fabricate a shipping container to meet those specifications.
For example Texas permits shipping container homes in rural (and even some suburban areas). You just have to apply for a permit first. Don’t skip heading to the government offices – apply for a permit before you begin construction.
Another example is Florida and Louisiana: Florida allows people to live in ‘manufactured structures’ as long as they do not damage the property. One of the key aspects to consider here is the foundation under the container.
Considering the flooding potential throughout the State of Louisiana, you should give a lot of attention to the foundation of the shipping container before you start construction.
Does Hawaii allow you to live off grid in shipping container homes? Plenty of people do. To learn more on whether or not itʻs legal to go off grid in Hawaii, check out this post.
Start with Zoning Laws
The best place to start learning about the requirements for making a shipping container home is by looking at the zoning laws and building codes for your location.
Go as local as possible for rules and stipulations regarding living in and modifying a shipping container: start with your municipality, then look at the township’s rules, then county requirements, and lastly, state laws.
Fortunately, most homesteaders want to live in rural areas away from housing developments and industrial zones. The further your property is from residential and industrial areas, the easier it will be to get approval for your shipping container home and the less likely you are to run into zoning issues.
Next, prepare your building plans. You will probably need to have a blueprint or floor plans prepared in order to get proper approval before building.
Some of the questions you might have to address in order to get approval to modify and eventually live in a shipping container are:
- The Foundation
- Electric installation
- Insulation and ventilation
- Where it is located on your property
Top States for Shipping Container Homes:
Again, throughout most of the United States, you can legally live in a shipping container, as long as you follow some rules. Here’s a quick look at some of the rules for container homes throughout the US, and if you want to learn about what states are the best ones to go off grid in, check out this post that ranks all 50 states.
There are some locations in Tennessee that don’t require building permits. This is a very lenient state in regards to home construction, but you do need permits for electricity and plumbing. Also, remember Tennessee’s history of tornadoes when you are designing where on your property to place the shipping container.
Pre-made container homes are popular in the state, if you have the budget, you could purchase one that is already ready-to-live in.
Yes, this state is very strict, but it’s also forward-thinking in terms of environmental and sustainable buildings.
You might see more prefab container homes in California, or hybrid options that combine shipping containers with other structures, but there are homes that are also entirely from modified shipping containers, too.
Keep in mind California’s natural disasters, like earthquakes and wildfires, when designing the foundation and ventilation systems of your container home.
Texas is one of the most well-known locations that favors shipping container homes, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘easy’ to DIY a container home.
Houston is one city that is known for having no zoning laws, but there are ordinance codes. Container homes are so popular in Texas that you can find several contractors that specialize in constructing shipping container homes.
The nice thing about using a professional builder who’s a pro at container homes is that you avoid making mistakes and save a lot of time.
If you live in Oregon, you can only live in a shipping container on land that is designated for a single-family home. Where you might come to some issues is if your land (whether being too large or too small) doesn’t qualify for this regulation.
Missouri is another state with very lax zoning and building laws – actually, you can live in a shipping container in some areas of Missouri without having to apply for a building permit. And, with the warm weather, you don’t have to do too much fussing with insulation for cold weather, although you should find a solution to keep you cool in the hot summer.
While the majority of locations have favorable laws for living in a shipping container, they have very strict laws around water, includings lakes, ponds, swamps and the ocean-front. You might need to check the rules about building a structure near a water body before starting to build.
Shipping container homes are allowed throughout the entire state of Hawai’i, and usually local homeowner’s associations have the final say in requirements of a container home. Remember, Hawai’i has a tropical climate, so make sure you have good shade and ventilation for your shipping container home.
*Of course, your particular state and county might have different regulations. You must check with your local and state governments to get the final approval for residing in a shipping container.
** This is not an exhaustive list, it’s just to give an idea of the elements you need to consider for making a shipping container inhabitable for permanent housing.
There you have it: it is generally legal to live in a shipping container, as long as it is up-to-code and a safe residence. You have to do your own research to find out about zoning laws, building permits and other construction elements specific to your location.
You’re more likely to get a building permit approved in a rural area, though, which is good news for us homesteaders.
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