Is a $12,000 shipping container home your key to owning a vacation rental in Costa Rica?

A model for a home made of two adjoining 40-foot shipping containers.

Buying a vacation home in Costa Rica and renting it out on Airbnb is an increasingly popular way to gain a home away from home and generate year-round cash flow. But so far there’s one thing missing in the vacation rental market here — homes made of shipping containers.

For as little as $12,000, you could be the proud new owner of a 20-foot shipping container home that you can place on any level lot where there is electricity and water. With a foundation that varies from cement tubes to wooden blocks, your turnkey home just needs to be plugged in on delivery day.

Home sweet home away from home.

Home sweet home away from home. (Courtesy of

But how nice can a shipping container home be? You don’t want to live in a trailer park.

The shipping container home idea has been around for a long time. Just Google “container homes,” click on images, and be amazed. You will find a wide variety of attractive designs and configurations. But as with any type of construction, you want to be sure your builder’s skills match your expectations. This is why your first step would be to consult an architect.

Invest the money to have a professional draw out your plans and then create a 3D model video of your home. This is actually very inexpensive and would give you a clear idea of what your future home will look like.

Tiled bathroom.

Tiled bathroom. (Courtesy of


What are the pros and cons?

One of the benefits of container homes is the permit processing. Most so-called “tiny homes” are under 200 square feet and are mounted on blocks or wheels to avoid municipal bylaws such as taxes and permits.

In some parts of Costa Rica, a 20-foot home may not require any construction permits because of its size and portability. In other areas, regardless of the size of the construction, you will need to have all the required building permits and signatures.

View into the kitchen.

View into the kitchen. (Courtesy of

Another advantage of a container home is its portability. This box can be moved around as your needs change. You can also add on, putting another container next to it or on top.

Some of the disadvantages are size, temperature and style.

Container homes come in two sizes, 20 feet and 40 feet long. They are 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The square footage for the smaller containers is 160 square feet. But by adding a rooftop deck you can double your livable space.

Spiral staircase to rooftop deck.

Spiral staircase to rooftop deck. (Courtesy of

These containers can get hot, especially near the beach. Therefore, make sure your home is insulated and has air-conditioning. The home will need a roof to keep the water off and the temperature down.

So when will you make your investment back?

My professional advice is to begin small, starting with a 20-foot home. This can be rented out easily and sold quickly. Container homes maintain a very high resale value (100 percent and up), and they can be carried on a truck and delivered anywhere. And your investment of $12,000 is less than the cost of buying a car.

Living room.

Living room. (Courtesy of

Based on average Airbnb rentals, a range of $45 to $75 per night equals a return on investment in 160 to 266 rental days. That’s roughly 18 days a month for just one year, and you’ve recovered your investment.

James Lee has lived in San Ramon, Costa Rica, for 17 years. He is a chiropractor and container home builder. He has built dozens of container home projects in the past 11 years. See more at, or contact James at


    Jose | February 23, 2017

  1. This looks great. Its seems like the perfect option for starting a small business.

  2. Diane Franklin | February 24, 2017

  3. All you need is water and electric? What about septic? That is just as important and a big expense. I hreard container homes referred to as Toaster Ovens.

  4. Thomas Patrick Rosenberger | February 24, 2017

  5. Shipping containers were not manufactured for housing and all various hazardous chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints were applied to protect the containers for their intended purpose of ocean and over the road transport of products. Therefore, to make these metal containers habitable, it is necessary to remove all these chemical contaminants which can pose serious health consequences for humans and animals. You can read some additional considerations here.

  6. Alan | February 24, 2017

  7. “Shipping containers were not manufactured for housing”


  8. Duke | February 27, 2017

  9. Here is a video of the home I built in Grecia Costa Rica.
    Here is my home I built out of 3 shipping containers. High Cube is what the containers are classified as because they are 9.5 ft. high and 45 Ft. long.
    The 3rd container is butted up against the 2nd apartment and is used as a very secure storage unit.
    The home is built as a duplex, each has a kitchen and bathroom and can be opened up to use as a large single home. It has a huge zink arched roof and as you see it has a porch which is overhanging the mountain slope which goes steeply down to the river.
    I had a terrible accident when I was working on my truck and it jumped the rock which I had jammed behind the rear wheel. It then rolled back and down the embankment to the river. It rolled over my head and body and almost killed me, but for the grace of God I am still here.
    The man ( Jimmy) who is in San Ramon and building these vacation homes is very knowledgeable and is very helpful. Truly a very nice person.
    Do NOT do what I did which is to build next to a river as the humidity does not mix well with living in a steel building and the mold is very problematic.

  10. Jacob | March 7, 2017

  11. How much, on average, is a flat lot in various parts of Costa Rica?

  12. Ken | March 14, 2017

  13. Given that Mr. Rosenberger was insulted for issuing a warning about these container homes, I just want to second his warning. I’m hardly the expert Mr. Rosenberger is, but I did briefly look into container homes and was dissuaded. There seem to be so many problems and additional costs with container homes that many experts recommend to forget them and just use whatever construction materials are common in your area, which here I assume would be concrete blocks. This doesn’t mean that container homes can’t work–and we have one post here testifying they can–but the headline of this article promising a home for $12,000 strikes me as misleadingly self-serving advertising, not information that anyone should take seriously.

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