Like a Giant Snail
March 9, 2007 8:02 AM   Subscribe

How difficult would it be to find places to lease on which to put a house made of ISO containers?

Basically, I'd like a space I can heavily customize (and not have to re-customize every couple years), but I still have a long list of cities I want to try living in before I settle down anywhere. I'm thinking about building a modular house out of a few ISO shipping containers and moving it from city to city. How difficult would it be to find plots on which to put it within, say, 30 minutes of city center, without buying and without running afoul of any laws or zoning restrictions?

(My list is mostly US cities. Bonus points for information about how I'd work such a thing for cities in Britain, Australia, or New Zealand.)
posted by reventlov to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's a cool idea. I'm no expert, but I bet all the various land use regulations are gonna be a bitch to comply with.

As for leasing vacant land -- call a local commercial realtor?

An RV wouldn't have the cachet of shipping containers, but it would offer the mobility you're after, and finding places to park should be easier, too.
posted by notyou at 8:12 AM on March 9, 2007


It sounds like your dwelling would be in a murky legal area as far as zoning. Would it be classified as something like an RV? Or as a permanent dwelling? This would probanly vary from place to place, and it could well depend on the subjective decision of the local bureaucracy.

If it is classified as a "permanent" dwelling then you would likely have to meet the housing inspection requirements for health and safety --wiring, water, sewage, structural worthiness, etc as well. These would have to be up to local specs as well.

As for land, perhaps local mobile home parks would allow you to rent a space.
posted by MasonDixon at 8:22 AM on March 9, 2007


Most mobile home parks in decent areas in Canada don't allow anything but brand new mobile homes to be moved into them--which is sort of defeating the concept of 'mobile'-- they certainly wouldn't allow RV containers. It might be different in the US.

Regular plots of land, though, would need to be serviced but empty, and that's going to be awfully rare and incredibly valuable in a city of any kind of size. You might find the occasional plot owned by someone who plans to build on it in a few years and would be willing to lease in the interim, but they'd be few and far between.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:39 AM on March 9, 2007


I've got quite a lot to say on this topic, but rather than spout off on inspectors, utilities, space planning, and the like, instead I'll just point to a nifty website.

Not quite what you're after, but maybe close enough.
posted by aramaic at 9:36 AM on March 9, 2007


Architects may be willing to work with you, to advertise their work:

• QuikHouse
• LOT/EK
• From eyesore to architecture
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Get a boat. Much better than a claptrap of shipping containers. Much more expensive too, so I guess that's going to be harder to swing. But still, that's my *portable dream house* It's a lot easier to find dockage than it will be to find land you can rent for 6 months near major metros. All of the cool cities you're considering are near water (bet you they are... maybe Austin, Atlanta aren't, but, hey, whatcha gonna do).

Your house on (multiple) wheels will need some way to get power / water / sewer. This is going to make setting up the house on vacant land all but impossible. And doing all of this yourself is more trouble than it's worth.
posted by zpousman at 10:32 AM on March 9, 2007


In Canada your dwelling is almost certain to be classed as a manufactured home IE: mobile and in most localities you won't be able to set it up in regular residential zones only trailer parks. However if you can wrangle enough land for the zoning to be agricultural you'll probably be fine, farmers are given a lot of latitude. Also you might be able to rent space in light industrial areas (auto body shops, light manufacturing, warehousing) if that doesn't offend your sensibilities.
posted by Mitheral at 11:06 AM on March 9, 2007


I'm assuming I will need to speak to an architect at some point about zoning (and lots of other) issues.

Industrial or commercial areas would be just fine for me, possibly even preferable, as long as I wouldn't get into trouble for living there.

I would need around 1/20th of an acre.

RVs are too tiny for me to live comfortably: the short ceiling and lack of space for an office are problematic. A houseboat would be cool, but probably too expensive, and I also don't know anything about boating.
posted by reventlov at 11:43 AM on March 9, 2007


I think your biggest problem is going to be figuring out how to deal with utilites. You aren't going to be able to legally live in a structure that doesn't meet certain minimal habitability requirements like water, electricity and sewage. So you can either live in an illegal structure or modify the postage stamp of land and the containers so that they have utilities, which is going to make them, and you, less mobile. You'd essentially end up with a mobile home that isn't very mobile.

Or what zpousman said.

Oh, and boats aren't necessarily that expensive. In fact, you can get them for free.

Despite the stigma, you'd probably be best off looking into a double-wide mobile home.
posted by lekvar at 12:27 PM on March 9, 2007


You do understand that (at least in the US) an awful lot of local zoning ordinances are designed precisely to prevent some well-meaning person like yourself setting up a jury-built house out of scrap materials on vacant land, right? Becoming "legal" in each city will involve, in each and every case, an expensive and potentially years-long process of land acquisition, architectural and zoning compliance, etc etc etc. In other words, not something you do more than once, and there is a reason few people will ever do it.

The traditional way to deal with utilities and zoning regulations, with a mobile dwelling, is to call it an "RV" (if more mobile) or "mobile home" (if less mobile, oxymoronical though that may be), and park it in an area designated for such mobile dwellings (called in the US RV and mobile home parks). But you will find that your shipping container home will be considered an eyesore and will not be welcomed in almost any RV or mobile home park, and may not actually meet legal standards to be allowed as a mobile home (this will vary by state, so I don't want to make a categorical statement on that; it might be legal in some places).

Residential uses of industrial land is often not allowed, and again you will have serious problems with utility hookups, code and zoning ordinances, etc, as well as the general, well, industrial ambiance of most industrial areas. They look sexy in noir movies, and gentrifying post-industrial areas are great to live in, but next to the scrap yard and across from the rendering plant is not so great for living.

So your only real hope is unincorporated areas, or the semi-rare (depends on what part of the country you are in) small town with no zoning and building code enforcement. Almost always, this will be a long way from the city (sort of definitionally, because as you increase population density, you run into the need to adjudicate and control competing land uses, prevent hazardous conditions, etc). Or, pick one city, and go through the process of making your container home legal, but knowing that that process will not transfer to another city if you did move the home later.

At a practical level, how are you going to move a house that is made of, say, three 40' shipping containers? You will have to disassemble the structure and truck each container separately, which is not a cheap process. Compared to the cost of renting an apartment in each new city, this is overall an incredibly expensive way to proceed, but if you have the cash, I'd love to see photos of the result.
posted by Forktine at 2:33 PM on March 9, 2007


In fairness, now that I've been all gloom and doom on the idea, I have to add that I think shipping container houses are about the coolest thing ever, and I want one. There are a huge array of websites with photos and design ideas, although most seem to presuppose either huge budgets or no planning oversight, or both. One place for ideas is this site; there are lots of others that you can find via google and any of the modernist housing forums. Design-wise, there is a lot of overlap between the container houses and the current flood of high-end prefab/modular houses, too.
posted by Forktine at 4:40 PM on March 9, 2007


Forktine writes "Residential uses of industrial land is often not allowed, and again you will have serious problems with utility hookups, code and zoning ordinances, etc, as well as the general, well, industrial ambiance of most industrial areas. They look sexy in noir movies, and gentrifying post-industrial areas are great to live in, but next to the scrap yard and across from the rendering plant is not so great for living."

Zoning is a pretty nuanced thing most places, light industrial allows stuff like trucking yards, transfer points, non emission manufacturing, cement casting, auto body shops that kind of thing. Rarely will it permit something like a rendering plant. Even a scrap yard is mostly a daylight operation more noisy than noxious. Utilities are a red herring; they won't be anymore difficult in this case than with a mobile home placed on non padded property.

Forktine writes "At a practical level, how are you going to move a house that is made of, say, three 40' shipping containers? You will have to disassemble the structure and truck each container separately, which is not a cheap process. Compared to the cost of renting an apartment in each new city, this is overall an incredibly expensive way to proceed, but if you have the cash, I'd love to see photos of the result."

Containers are designed to be moved, look around and you'll see most cities will have at least one company offering container rental by the week/month/year. Also you can cut openings anywhere but corners. Cut openings where ever you want the containers to meet and then weld in a flange with regular bolt holes. When shipping bolt a steel plate to the flange and when in living mode bolt the respective flanges together. Having said that I'd try to get my space down to a single 40 or 53' container, it'll be a lot easier. You can ship a container from coast to coast for around $1000 plus handling at each end. Cheaper than you could drive a 33' RV with $3 gas at 4 mpg.
posted by Mitheral at 6:26 PM on March 9, 2007


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