Are Shipping Container Homes Legal in California?

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Shipping container homes have become increasingly popular, and as a result, the government has established zoning requirements, building codes, permit requirements, building permits, and other regulations.

With all of these restrictions in place, many people have the the same question: “Are shipping container homes legal in California?

According to Allied Market Research, container homes are expected to hit $73 million in market share by 2025, growing at a rate of 6.5% from 2018 to 2025. There are many regulating committees to regulate land use and guide occupants on the legality of owning container homes.

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We’ll discuss all of the elements required for owning container homes in California, especially in the major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

Are Container Homes Legal in California?

Residents are allowed to modify shipping containers into dwelling units as long as the zoning laws and the building code compliance.

Since California is one the most urbanized and expensive places to live in the country, the real estate property values have skyrocketed. Since they are surrounded by the ocean, they have very strict land regulations.

This makes it ideal for building or buying container homes. The north coast and inland have fewer requirements. Therefore, a container home would be the ideal fit. However, it all depends on which areas you choose. Some places have more zoning and coding regulations than others.

Building Regulations You Need to Be Aware of in California

Property Zoning

Zoning breaks up the urban land into various areas, which determines what type of real estate can be built there. The city and county governments use zoning to plan and develop the city in order to keep similar types of buildings in an area.

These types are usually broken down into residential and then commercial. They are further subdivided from there and may be listed as R-1, R-2, R-3, etc.

When complying with zoning codes, you must have an answer for what the governing entity is looking for. You’ll need a detailed project plan on the commercial or residential unit you intend to build. Even a shipping container home has similar rules to other forms of real estate in California, such as apartments, rental property, flats, bungalows, and mansions. It’s best to read up on the California planning statutes to see where you can and cannot have these containers. Here are a few common zoning codes in California that you should know:

  • R-1 Zoning Code: This code is designed for single-family occupants.
  • R-2 Zoning Code: This is designed for people with two residential units, also referred to as duplexes. Also, R-2 must be located on a single lot.
  • R-3 Zoning Code: This is made for multiple residential units.

Building permits or codes

Another type of shipping container homes regulation is building permits and building code. A building permit proves your compliance and allows you to continue construction activities to build your home.

A building code is the rules that determine how the homes must be built, such as the design. Many of the codes were created by the international code council and are updated annually.

The council has set a code for each subset for the builder, such as the international plumbing code, national electric code, hud code, and the national fire protection association code.

You must have your project application approved for storage container homes by complying with the various standards and building codes.

Manufactured, Mobile and Modular Building Codes

It can be challenging to differentiate between manufactured, mobile, and modular homes. Mobile and manufactured homes fall under the HUD code, while a single-family modular home falls under the IBC.

As stated by the HUD, shipping containers that are converted into houses must follow city and county building codes like modular and site-built homes.

HOA Rules and Deed Restrictions

Deed restrictions are created by the developer of the land to ensure that the area or space keeps a uniform appearance, which also protects the property value.

Deed restrictions are similar to the homeowner’s association or HOA rules. HOA rules are standards that can be voted to be amended. In contrast, deed restrictions will be a part of the land forever and can’t be changed unless a court order removes that particular type of restriction.

Regulating Entities

It is hard to go over every little thing that is regulated or how each piece of land is treated. But we can touch on the various levels of government that any owner must work with.

County Government Regulation

Every possible thing can be placed into a county. Not all properties are in cities, but all properties are in counties. People who live in urban areas typically will have fewer regulations than others who must abide by city laws.

Municipal Government Regulation

Municipal is another fancy word for the town and city. Typically, they govern the rules that are within the city limit. In California, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, all must comply with zoning and building codes at the municipal level.

Federal Government Regulation

If you’re one to find an answer before starting, then you’ll be glad to know the federal government doesn’t have any building regulations. The zoning regulations and building codes in California usually fall under the local level.

State Government Regulation

Luckily, one won’t have to worry too much about state regulations. The state doesn’t have very much involvement in zoning or the construction of building structures. However, in some ways, the municipalities and counties must answer to the state. The exception is that you must follow various protocols such as protecting against earthquakes in California or wildfires in California.

What Gets Regulated Inside of a Container Home in California

There isn’t a clear cut answer regarding who regulates what in a building. However, some common things typically must fall within a container home project.

This may vary based on city, state, and area. The requirements could be a combination between restrictive covenants, building codes, and property zones.

  • Appearance: Style, color, and materials that are used for roof, walls, windows, and other exterior parts of the home
  • Size: maximum allowable height, number of bedrooms, and square footage
  • Plumbing, Mechanical, and Electrical: Details surrounding the design, materials, and installation of these systems
  • Foundation: Type of foundation, height, and depth
  • Accessibility: Requirements for giving permission to people with disabilities to access your home
  • Landscaping: Number of trees eliminated during home construction and types of plants that are allowed for this space
  • Site Offsets: Distance from neighborhood and distance between the edge of the house to the property line
  • Means of Egress: Size of interior passageways, number, and size of exterior exits, rooms that can be transited before exiting
  • Energy Conservation: Certain requirements such as appliances, windows, sealing around penetrations, insulation to lower the overall energy usage.
  • Structure: Standards for compliance with snow and wind loads, structural reinforcement for houses
  • Smoke and Fire Protection: Location, type, and number of Carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors

Looking to the Future of Shipping Container Homes in California

As more shipping containers are being converted into single-family houses in California, the more the regulating entities accept them.

These entities are still trying to incorporate the container construction into the necessary zoning and codes.

Before, many areas in California used to ban shipping containers that were dedicated to single family houses. However, more and more governing bodies are now allowing people to live in an area with a storage or shipping container.

If you’re looking for an answer about how to properly use containers, the ICC has a non-mandatory document explaining the fundamentals of shipping containers used as a building.

Maybe you’re looking for an answer as to what type of storage containers are good for living in and what is a fair price for them. The AC462 Structural Building Materials From Shipping Containers document explains what qualifications must be met, such as the structures needed and the square footage or size of them to be an official container home in California.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Does a 40 Foot Shipping Container Cost?

The price of shipping containers may vary drastically. However, you can expect to pay a ballpark figure of $2,200 for a used 40 feet container and $4,500 for a new 40 feet container. Keep in mind that the price of these shipping containers will vary based on the supplier, condition, age, and delivery fees.

Will Banks Finance Shipping Container Homes?

Besides abiding by the building codes, you’ll also have to worry about financing the construction of this type of home. Luckily, you have the option to get a mortgage or personal loan. As long as your home is built within the compliance of California codes, then you can ask the bank to finance your shipping container house just like any other single-family residence.

However, the details might be tricky. For example, your container house must have a permanent foundation and utility hookups to get a mortgage. This ensures that you’ll also pay property taxes. All major cities such as San Francisco and San Diego will work this way.

You may also be able to acquire a construction loan as long as the codes are complied with. However, the problem is that lenders are unsure about its value used for collateral in the case of bankruptcy. It’s best to find an established contractor who understands which lenders to work with and how to convey the value to them using solid construction plans.

Is Living in Shipping Containers Safe?

For first time dwellers, shipping containers might feel dangerous to live in. However, since they are typically used as storage facilities, they sometimes might be even more secure than regular homes if the metal parts are retained. Leave the original structure intact to ensure it’s safe to live in.

The key is to fit the doors and windows behind the original container doors. You’ll have two doors to ensure you are protected well from all kinds of environments. You can still let light in by leaving the exterior door open but closing the retrofitted door and windows closed. Many states also recognize shipping containers as safe to live in.

Final Thoughts

Luckily, California is one of the few states that provides its occupants a lot of freedom regarding construction and storage capabilities. However, there are a lot of codes in California to follow. Otherwise, you may get into some legal trouble.

If you follow this guide carefully, you’ll understand the basics of how you can live in shipping containers despite the building and zoning codes.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

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