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Buy land and build Off-Grid home in California - Is it Possible on a Budget?

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AceVentures

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Not entirely sure if the RE investing sub-forum is the right place for this, as it doesn't pertain to standard commercial/RE investment.

Here's a quick background. Many of my values are centered around my connection with nature. My need to be outside in good year-round climate to enjoy many of my favorite activities is a huge factor in what I pursue next in life. With that premise, I wanted to ask about something I've had in mind for a while - buying a piece of property in a desirable location (for nature seekers and not necessarily RE investors) and building a tiny or shipping-container type of lower-budget home off grid for personal use.

This is not a question about how you turn this into a business - but really about how you can create your dream nature home on a budget.

The Purpose:
  • Ownership of a personal piece of paradise
  • Sense of security/safety
  • Lead a life in alignment with core values and need for the outdoors
  • Place to raise a small family
  • Remote work to sustain lifestyle and passion projects
The Critera:
  • Land:
    • Location - currently scoping California, but open to suggestions
      • CA provides lots of what I'm looking for in terms of weather, climate, both the ocean and the mountains, surfing, the Red Woods, many state parks, and the list goes on.
      • Secluded in nature
      • Within 1hr drive to a city which could answer all off-grid needs
      • Close to the coast
    • Lot size doesn't entirely matter, but at a minimum something big enough to build a home on and still have a patch of grass left over
    • If large enough - it could provide for a garden, small chicken farm, or any other infrastructure that could offer additional self-reliance
  • Home:
    • Shipping container DIY or possibly pre-fab
    • Ideally build a home of my own
    • Plan would be to sub-contract as few things as possible to keep the costs down
    • Experience level - 0
  • MAX COST - 100k USD
There is lots of flex in the criteria at the moment, and that's ok as there are still lots of unknowns to me. Which is why I'm here seeking some advice.

How to turn this vision into reality?

I've found a plot of land in an area that I find desirable which would really help me live my dream life in terms of connection with nature. It's in central California region, meets all of my location criteria, and is currently on sale for ~$15k for ~2acres of land.

With that low of a land cost and some behind-the napkin cost estimates for shipping-container home builds - I reckon it is entirely within the realm of possibility to pursue something like this.

My question to many of you experienced builders and business-people -
  • Is this dream a reality with what I have in mind, or have I missed something huge?
  • What are some of the key considerations I should study for a project like this?
  • Do you have any suggestions of how I could get started if I wanted to scope this type of development?
Many thanks for reading - hope others can comment on this type of build but also the purpose of this mission - freedom in dream location with budget investment and sweat labor.
 

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SteveO

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Not entirely sure if the RE investing sub-forum is the right place for this, as it doesn't pertain to standard commercial/RE investment.

Here's a quick background. Many of my values are centered around my connection with nature. My need to be outside in good year-round climate to enjoy many of my favorite activities is a huge factor in what I pursue next in life. With that premise, I wanted to ask about something I've had in mind for a while - buying a piece of property in a desirable location (for nature seekers and not necessarily RE investors) and building a tiny or shipping-container type of lower-budget home off grid for personal use.

This is not a question about how you turn this into a business - but really about how you can create your dream nature home on a budget.

The Purpose:
  • Ownership of a personal piece of paradise
  • Sense of security/safety
  • Lead a life in alignment with core values and need for the outdoors
  • Place to raise a small family
  • Remote work to sustain lifestyle and passion projects
The Critera:
  • Land:
    • Location - currently scoping California, but open to suggestions
      • CA provides lots of what I'm looking for in terms of weather, climate, both the ocean and the mountains, surfing, the Red Woods, many state parks, and the list goes on.
      • Secluded in nature
      • Within 1hr drive to a city which could answer all off-grid needs
      • Close to the coast
    • Lot size doesn't entirely matter, but at a minimum something big enough to build a home on and still have a patch of grass left over
    • If large enough - it could provide for a garden, small chicken farm, or any other infrastructure that could offer additional self-reliance
  • Home:
    • Shipping container DIY or possibly pre-fab
    • Ideally build a home of my own
    • Plan would be to sub-contract as few things as possible to keep the costs down
    • Experience level - 0
  • MAX COST - 100k USD
There is lots of flex in the criteria at the moment, and that's ok as there are still lots of unknowns to me. Which is why I'm here seeking some advice.

How to turn this vision into reality?

I've found a plot of land in an area that I find desirable which would really help me live my dream life in terms of connection with nature. It's in central California region, meets all of my location criteria, and is currently on sale for ~$15k for ~2acres of land.

With that low of a land cost and some behind-the napkin cost estimates for shipping-container home builds - I reckon it is entirely within the realm of possibility to pursue something like this.

My question to many of you experienced builders and business-people -
  • Is this dream a reality with what I have in mind, or have I missed something huge?
  • What are some of the key considerations I should study for a project like this?
  • Do you have any suggestions of how I could get started if I wanted to scope this type of development?
Many thanks for reading - hope others can comment on this type of build but also the purpose of this mission - freedom in dream location with budget investment and sweat labor.
Unless there has been technological changes, ac's won't work with solar. I grew up in San Diego and never had air conditioning in the 41 years I was there. But the farther you get away from the coast, the hotter it gets.

100k seems light. I have a lot in Utah that I want to develop. For starters, looking at 100k to get driveway, well, electricity and septic. I realize you don't need electricity but solar definitely has a cost.

It'll be tight. Is it possible to up the budget and make a nicer place?
 

SteveO

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Btw... I get what you want to do. Nothing like the ability to get away.

In Arizona, I have a house on the side of a mountain. Lots of open space around. In Utah, 18 acres on top of a mountain with 360 degree views. I plan on living in both.
 
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AceVentures

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Nice Steve, that sounds awesome. I really want to be in the mountains too.

100k just for that? Shit. Did not think it would cost that much. But I guess it depends on where you can drive power/water from and where the nearest road is right?

The area I'm looking at isn't THAT remote, it's in the outskirts of a small town. From what I can tell of public maps and records, there seems to be another house ~1mi down the road from where the road touches the property - indication that electric/water might be accessible?

I imagine some kind of solar/diesel hybrid with power banks could work for completely off-grid, but if power is within reach that would be infinitely more convenient.

The budget can move up if I use loans or earn and save more. With adequately sized land, I wonder if I could sub-section and ultimately develop 2 properties. Use 1 to pay or cost recover the other. If doing tiny-home or shipping container design - employ a design1, build2 for cost synergies?

I do think that keeping the cost down makes this a more beneficial exercise - Is it really possible to own a piece of paradise for a bucket of capital that is within tangible reach of many 1st world families?
 

SteveO

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Nice Steve, that sounds awesome. I really want to be in the mountains too.

100k just for that? Shit. Did not think it would cost that much. But I guess it depends on where you can drive power/water from and where the nearest road is right?

The area I'm looking at isn't THAT remote, it's in the outskirts of a small town. From what I can tell of public maps and records, there seems to be another house ~1mi down the road from where the road touches the property - indication that electric/water might be accessible?

I imagine some kind of solar/diesel hybrid with power banks could work for completely off-grid, but if power is within reach that would be infinitely more convenient.

The budget can move up if I use loans or earn and save more. With adequately sized land, I wonder if I could sub-section and ultimately develop 2 properties. Use 1 to pay or cost recover the other. If doing tiny-home or shipping container design - employ a design1, build2 for cost synergies?

I do think that keeping the cost down makes this a more beneficial exercise - Is it really possible to own a piece of paradise for a bucket of capital that is within tangible reach of many 1st world families?
In Yuma, I actually bought 52 acres. My house is only going to take up 5 acres. The remainder of the land is in the process of being parceled up and sold. Not including the house itself, I paid about 250K for 50 acres. The parcels should gross me about 1.1M. Cost to put in a road, pay for engineering, and all the other misc should cost me about 100K. Don't know how long it will take me to sell all 6 of the parcels. One should be sold this week though.

So the idea of splitting lots to make money is a valid idea. Not for the faint of heart though.

The reason the cost is so high in Utah is that I want the house well off of the road. It is already at the end of a road but seclusion is desired. The driveway and electricity will be a challenge. The property is almost all giant boulders which will add costs. So, you might be able to get away with less depending on the circumstances. That is part of your due diligence though. Tie the property up with a contract and then determine the costs. You can always let it go at no cost to you as long as you are within the inspection period in the contract.

If you want to keep it without power (full solar with generator backup), you can use a swamp cooler. That depends on what you will be comfortable with.

I personally feel that less expensive improvements on a lot may diminish your overall return. I do understand your goal here is to live cheap.
 

SteveO

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Running power and water for a mile may be very expensive. How hot does it get in the summer there? You may want to see if you can get a permit for a well.
 
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Hey @AceVentures , @SteveO in my book is genius btw !

I did a lot of research here in Sedona on this very topic. Still haven't ruled it out. I found that the rules for putting a tiny home or ADU vary between Counties so talk to them. Sedona has 2 Counties. One is an absolute 'NO", the other is very progressive and makes it quite easy to do.

My thought was/is to buy 2 and rent one out on Airbnb. This would cover my overhead.

There's a manufacturer in TX I visited that builds tiny homes (anything under 400 sq ft technically). They also build larger homes. $37,500 was my delivered quote for a 400 sq ft 2 bedroom with upgrades. Bear in mind, these are not high end but are exactly what I was looking for.

So SteveO is spot on in saying to do your due diligence. I can't stress this enough. Make calls, talk with the Counties, property owners, tiny home builders, etc.
 

SteveO

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Hey @AceVentures , @SteveO in my book is genius btw !

I did a lot of research here in Sedona on this very topic. Still haven't ruled it out. I found that the rules for putting a tiny home or ADU vary between Counties so talk to them. Sedona has 2 Counties. One is an absolute 'NO", the other is very progressive and makes it quite easy to do.

My thought was/is to buy 2 and rent one out on Airbnb. This would cover my overhead.

There's a manufacturer in TX I visited that builds tiny homes (anything under 400 sq ft technically). They also build larger homes. $37,500 was my delivered quote for a 400 sq ft 2 bedroom with upgrades. Bear in mind, these are not high end but are exactly what I was looking for.

So SteveO is spot on in saying to do your due diligence. I can't stress this enough. Make calls, talk with the Counties, property owners, tiny home builders, etc.
What will you do for power? Hvac definitely required.

I talked to my ac guy and a solar company at one point. The answer last year was no. But I am seeing different answers on Google. Let me know if you guys find a different answer.
 
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What will you do for power? Hvac definitely required.

I talked to my ac guy and a solar company addy one point. The answer last year was no. But I am seeing different answers on Google. Let me know if you guys find a different answer.
There’s a YouTube series of a dude that’s building a container home in California. Google it, it’s a very good series.

It looks like it is costing way more than a regular home. He had to put in sprinklers, and all kinds of other code stuff.

I agree with SteveO that $100k seems light.
 

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Unless there has been technological changes, ac's won't work with solar. I grew up in San Diego and never had air conditioning in the 41 years I was there. But the farther you get away from the coast, the hotter it gets.

100k seems light. I have a lot in Utah that I want to develop. For starters, looking at 100k to get driveway, well, electricity and septic. I realize you don't need electricity but solar definitely has a cost.

It'll be tight. Is it possible to up the budget and make a nicer place?
Saw someone on Youtube with one of these. They seem to work, but they are very new.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07D3V5SKF/?tag=tff-amazonparser-20
 

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Hey @AceVentures , @SteveO in my book is genius btw !

I did a lot of research here in Sedona on this very topic. Still haven't ruled it out. I found that the rules for putting a tiny home or ADU vary between Counties so talk to them. Sedona has 2 Counties. One is an absolute 'NO", the other is very progressive and makes it quite easy to do.

My thought was/is to buy 2 and rent one out on Airbnb. This would cover my overhead.

There's a manufacturer in TX I visited that builds tiny homes (anything under 400 sq ft technically). They also build larger homes. $37,500 was my delivered quote for a 400 sq ft 2 bedroom with upgrades. Bear in mind, these are not high end but are exactly what I was looking for.
Umm we need to talk haha. I have been looking at houses in Sedona so I can gauge the market to see if it comes down where I would make an offer. While looking though the same idea came up about buying some land and building 2-5 smaller houses on it. I would turn them into vacation rentals with the ability to make one come available whenever I want to stay there a month. I need to sell my other rental first...

Was going to msg you next week to check in @AceVentures . I understand what you are going for and you don’t need or necessary want to mess with this as a business. Besides the experience though, I think you have the skills to do this where you can get what you want as well as make a good future investment. You would probably have to use the capital with some lending involved and be patient to find the right deal that works for you.
 

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The main issue with the AC is the startup watts I am assuming. What about an appropriate sized natural gas generator for the AC size with a decent size tank that can be run during times of peak heat. Solar and battery bank for the rest of the house. Not the most effective, but could work for 100% off grid and extra power could be used to charge your batteries along with solar.
 

biophase

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Umm we need to talk haha. I have been looking at houses in Sedona so I can gauge the market to see if it comes down where I would make an offer. While looking though the same idea came up about buying some land and building 2-5 smaller houses on it. I would turn them into vacation rentals with the ability to make one come available whenever I want to stay there a month. I need to sell my other rental first...

Was going to msg you next week to check in @AceVentures . I understand what you are going for and you don’t need or necessary want to mess with this as a business. Besides the experience though, I think you have the skills to do this where you can get what you want as well as make a good future investment. You would probably have to use the capital with some lending involved and be patient to find the right deal that works for you.
I just went up to Sedona yesterday to look at 5 properties. One seems promising, the rest were disappointing.

I think the market is still too high.
 

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I saw one that has potential last week online. It needs to come down some more for my small pockets, so I can fix it up appropriately.
 
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In Yuma, I actually bought 52 acres. My house is only going to take up 5 acres. The remainder of the land is in the process of being parceled up and sold. Not including the house itself, I paid about 250K for 50 acres. The parcels should gross me about 1.1M. Cost to put in a road, pay for engineering, and all the other misc should cost me about 100K. Don't know how long it will take me to sell all 6 of the parcels. One should be sold this week though.

So the idea of splitting lots to make money is a valid idea. Not for the faint of heart though.

The reason the cost is so high in Utah is that I want the house well off of the road. It is already at the end of a road but seclusion is desired. The driveway and electricity will be a challenge. The property is almost all giant boulders which will add costs. So, you might be able to get away with less depending on the circumstances. That is part of your due diligence though. Tie the property up with a contract and then determine the costs. You can always let it go at no cost to you as long as you are within the inspection period in the contract.

If you want to keep it without power (full solar with generator backup), you can use a swamp cooler. That depends on what you will be comfortable with.

I personally feel that less expensive improvements on a lot may diminish your overall return. I do understand your goal here is to live cheap.
Sweet idea - and if you're not worrying about a loan and know the market, you can just wait on it to sell. Nice.

I was scoping costs for clearing land from trees and they weren't unreasonable as long as the area were small enough. As cheap as $1500/acre up to $7000/acre if densely forested. Where you wish to place your home on the land relative to the nearest road will be a big factor in costs.

Didn't know anything about swamp coolers - thanks for the suggestion.

I did a lot of research here in Sedona on this very topic. Still haven't ruled it out. I found that the rules for putting a tiny home or ADU vary between Counties so talk to them. Sedona has 2 Counties. One is an absolute 'NO", the other is very progressive and makes it quite easy to do.

My thought was/is to buy 2 and rent one out on Airbnb. This would cover my overhead.

There's a manufacturer in TX I visited that builds tiny homes (anything under 400 sq ft technically). They also build larger homes. $37,500 was my delivered quote for a 400 sq ft 2 bedroom with upgrades. Bear in mind, these are not high end but are exactly what I was looking for.
With tourism in Sedona I think it would work, this is a sweet idea! I imagine the cost you were quoted doesn't include delivery or install? That seems like a really good price actually. I know most of the materials for a basic shipping container home can be bought for ~20k. That doesn't include any of the labor, roofing, landscaping, site prep, septic, water supply, or electric supply.

That's where I was hope sweat and creativity, maybe sprinkled with some heart and collaboration can allow for a project like this to be done cheaper than a new-build.

Good reminder on regulations - I can imagine CA having strict rules...
 
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There’s a YouTube series of a dude that’s building a container home in California. Google it, it’s a very good series.

It looks like it is costing way more than a regular home. He had to put in sprinklers, and all kinds of other code stuff.

I agree with SteveO that $100k seems light.
Found it. What a great analog - especially it being in California. He's building in Joshua Tree and I'm looking at Norther California - will have to dig details but there will be at least statewide similarities.

His local building department hit him with a 700sqft minimum for building a house - good example of how regulation can quickly challenge a low budget.

Umm we need to talk haha. I have been looking at houses in Sedona so I can gauge the market to see if it comes down where I would make an offer. While looking though the same idea came up about buying some land and building 2-5 smaller houses on it. I would turn them into vacation rentals with the ability to make one come available whenever I want to stay there a month. I need to sell my other rental first...
Kinda like house-hacking with a multi-family but development-hacking? Is that a thing? It should be, this type of project could help people own their dream home and create dream homes for a number of other families.

Yea I was initially just looking at scoping the costs to develop something unique to my needs in a dream location. Good concerns noted so far - bigger budget would certainly help.

Question of funding becomes more important. Now I find myself thinking about @SteveO 's strategy. Maybe I should be thinking about this more as a business so I can at least recoup some costs or increase my budget if I can deliver value to others.

Seth how were you looking at the Sedona build idea? Getting investors or loans? Can you get traditional mortgages for something like this?
 

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That's a nice project, I would just suggest to not go too far from the city, being far from people brings more problems than it fixes, it's all a matter of accessibility and praticability, being it for your social life or a simple go to the supermarket, I grew up in the suburbs and now I live in the countryside, the nature is great for our well being as a man, but there is nothing like having civilization near. 1Hr is too far, 10-15min is ideal, and you can still find a natural paradise and the joy of permaculture near urban areas. BUT, if you have resources to invest in a fourplex kind of real state investment in some urban area forget your plans, delay them. Live in 1 division, rent the others. Good luck!
 

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“Seth how were you looking at the Sedona build idea? Getting investors or loans? Can you get traditional mortgages for something like this?”

That is the part I would have to do some research on. If it was just a single unit I would probably get with a contractor and a construction loan that would be converted to conventional for the building process. I am not sure if there are better ways if I am looking at multiple units as I haven’t been involved in anything like that. What do you think @SteveO ?
 

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Found it. What a great analog - especially it being in California. He's building in Joshua Tree and I'm looking at Norther California - will have to dig details but there will be at least statewide similarities.

His local building department hit him with a 700sqft minimum for building a house - good example of how regulation can quickly challenge a low budget.
My friend and I looked at this home around Austin. 3135 Thurman Rd, Lago Vista, TX 78645 | MLS #6297095 | Zillow

This is why I would shy away from building a container home. As a buyer, this home looks awesome. However, they are asking regular home prices for a container home. And quite honestly, I think when people see one, they will assume that it was cheap to build, so it shouldn't sell for retail.

So if they had just built a regular home that looked like this one, we may have liked it more.

Also, container homes are going to be long and thin and have 8 foot ceilings. So you know the rooms will not be big.

After watching the youtube series of that guy building his home in CA, I've come to the conclusion that it's cheaper and better to build a regular home. A container home does not save much money and there is so much extra work to do on them. And finally, your resale value is just not going to be there. Think about it, would you buy someone else's container home in Sedona? If so, would you pay the same price as a regular house in $/sf?
 

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I'm actually looking to get shipping containers for my business. So a 26ft container is around $3-$5k. When I look at what I get for $3k. I'm getting a 26x8x8 shell. I just can't help to think that I could frame that shell for around the same price with regular building materials. So I just don't see how a container would be cheaper.

Now, if you started to stack container on top of each other and create over hangs and stuff, I could see how the containers would become way cheaper than regular framing.
 

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This is why I would shy away from building a container home. As a buyer, this home looks awesome. However, they are asking regular home prices for a container home. And quite honestly, I think when people see one, they will assume that it was cheap to build, so it shouldn't sell for retail.

So if they had just built a regular home that looked like this one, we may have liked it more.
I get that. You might be able to earn rental income within market rates if the appeal is strong enough. I'm with you though, I personally would undervalue a shipping container home if I were buying one. Exact reasoning you described, I think I can build it cheaper.

I'm actually looking to get shipping containers for my business. So a 26ft container is around $3-$5k. When I look at what I get for $3k. I'm getting a 26x8x8 shell. I just can't help to think that I could frame that shell for around the same price with regular building materials. So I just don't see how a container would be cheaper.
An interesting use I saw was in populous areas like Toronto. Dude has a restaurant in a densely populated part of town - decides to renovate the top to build a home. Modular off-site built shipping containers used to build up.

This is another duo that built a multi-unit apartment using shipping containers in Phoenix AZ. I can see how stacking in this way can optimize higher rental income per /sqft of develop-able land.

Now, if you started to stack container on top of each other and create over hangs and stuff, I could see how the containers would become way cheaper than regular framing.
Do you mean building something like the below? And what makes it way cheaper than regular framing in this instance?

32598
 

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I get that. You might be able to earn rental income within market rates if the appeal is strong enough. I'm with you though, I personally would undervalue a shipping container home if I were buying one. Exact reasoning you described, I think I can build it cheaper.



An interesting use I saw was in populous areas like Toronto. Dude has a restaurant in a densely populated part of town - decides to renovate the top to build a home. Modular off-site built shipping containers used to build up.

This is another duo that built a multi-unit apartment using shipping containers in Phoenix AZ. I can see how stacking in this way can optimize higher rental income per /sqft of develop-able land.



Do you mean building something like the below? And what makes it way cheaper than regular framing in this instance?

View attachment 32598
I think stacking the containers is what will make them more cost effective. I don't know if just stacking one container atop another like that would.
 

SteveO

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“Seth how were you looking at the Sedona build idea? Getting investors or loans? Can you get traditional mortgages for something like this?”

That is the part I would have to do some research on. If it was just a single unit I would probably get with a contractor and a construction loan that would be converted to conventional for the building process. I am not sure if there are better ways if I am looking at multiple units as I haven’t been involved in anything like that. What do you think @SteveO ?
I don't understand the financial aspects of vacation homes so can't speak to that. I do understand multi-family though. I would NEVER build. Others may and that is up to them. I prefer to buy well under replacement cost and sell as values approach replacement cost. Simple model.

Those that choose to do vacation rentals, that is a great way to supplement income. Not for me though. I don't want any of that around my residence.
 

Sethamus

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I think stacking the containers is what will make them more cost effective. I don't know if just stacking one container atop another like that would.
Looking at those examples keep in mind though how they are stacked. The load points for these containers are all on the corners, the middle section is not made to hold a load so extra support is needed when you start having one overhang in a cantilever style. The picture you posted @AceVentures would be a good example though of increasing square footage by stacking. Remember also that they are not insulated so you would have to still frame the inside to make room for 1 inch sheet insulation and electrical/plumbing.

A coworker of mine was working on the plans for an empty lake lot he had and this is some of the stuff we came across. He was going to do all of the interior work himself to save on cost. He had 8 containers 2 high with cantilevers on the front and back (like an H) and that is when we found out he needed additional support. He essentially gained 3 levels of living space if you counted the rooftop, it was a cool design. Industry is slow though (as you know) so I think he put it all on hold and never talked to an engineer about the loads and support to get an official answer.
 

Bigguns50

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This place rocked in Detroit ! Now....probably closed due to Covid.

@SteveO , @Sethamus ... my contact person told me A/C and heat can be run off grid using solar. The units are called Mini-splits. You can buy them at Home Depot. I haven't researched this yet but I know what they are. In a 399 sq ft house there are typically 2 installed.
 

SteveO

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This place rocked in Detroit ! Now....probably closed due to Covid.

@SteveO , @Sethamus ... my contact person told me A/C and heat can be run off grid using solar. The units are called Mini-splits. You can buy them at Home Depot. I haven't researched this yet but I know what they are. In a 399 sq ft house there are typically 2 installed.
Thanks! I have a mini-split in my house that cools the entire lower floor. Works great! I have one compressor and 2 blowers. Amazing how efficient they are.

Good news that they can be run off of batteries.
 

Sethamus

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This place rocked in Detroit ! Now....probably closed due to Covid.

@SteveO , @Sethamus ... my contact person told me A/C and heat can be run off grid using solar. The units are called Mini-splits. You can buy them at Home Depot. I haven't researched this yet but I know what they are. In a 399 sq ft house there are typically 2 installed.
They had something similar in Belize that I had forgot about until you posted that. In the right spot this could be a great little hub of businesses.
 

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