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Buying Used Shipping Containers: A Quick Guide

Buying used shipping containers can often provide similar performance to new ones, but at significant savings.  Many applications of shipping containers  – such as storing gear or materials on construction job sites, vehicle storage, and the like – represent great candidates for buying used shipping containers.  However, the old rule “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) applies to this industry, just as it does to others.   The savvy purchaser will take great care to determine whether a particular used container meets all of their requirements – or whether another used container (or even a new one), would better serve their needs.

Aspects of a Used Container You Should Evaluate

When buying used shipping containers, these are the key items to evaluate:

1. General Appearance
Aesthetics are a very personal thing – while used shipping containers are not the most attractive item to start with, a rusty, poorly painted or weatherbeaten container can present a real eyesore experience, versus one that has had its rust removed and has been repainted.

2. Doors
Easily swinging doors, that latch properly, are a must, particularly if you are going to be storing valuable items such as tools on a job site, or even personal property.  If you can’t open the door to get into the box, that could be a problem – by the same token, a door that doesn’t latch or lock is even worse!

3. Floor
Make sure that the flooring is not rotted, and will support whatever load you intend to place on it.

4. Rust Spots
Rust is a common occurrence on these types of containers; a little rust is not a big deal, but significant rust can eventually rust all the way through and become a hole.  Plus it’s unsightly; so inspect for rust.  That said, rust can usually be ground away and repainted over, with few ill effects.

5. Holes
Obviously, rust holes that have broken all the way through prevent a container from being ‘wind and watertight’ and should be of great concern.

6. Dents
Unlike canned food, where dents can indicate the potential for punctures and even botulism, a dent in a storage container is often not of great concern – unless it is a large dent that can affect the structural integrity or the aesthetic appearance of the container.  But dents should be inspected for, nonetheless.

7.  “Fit for Purpose”
Make sure you select a container that fits your application.  For instance, if you need something that can be delivered on a flatbed delivery truck, a 20’ container is probably what you should be considering.  Doors and other features should be considered based on whatever your requirements are.

8. Size
You might consider purchasing a container that is slightly larger than what you initially need.  There is nothing more frustrating than purchasing a container and filling it, only to find out a few months down the road that it’s just a little too small for your purposes.

9. Select a Supplier Nearby
This can aid in reducing transportation costs.  For instance, it’s uncommon for someone in the mid-west to purchase a container from the East Coast, due to the prohibitive transportation costs involved.

10. Year Does Not Matter
We commonly hear questions about the age of a container (probably due to people mentally “anchoring” on their experience shopping for automobiles – understandable because automobiles are bigger than a breadbox, shaped much like a container, and cost multi-thousands of dollars.  As it turns out though, the actual manufacture year of a container is largely irrelevant – what’s far more important is the condition it is in.

Why You May Want to Consider a New Container Instead

While buying used shipping containers often makes sense, new shipping containers do offer several advantages over used ones.  First and foremost, their appearance may be superior – a new box tends to be free of dents and scratches, and the paint usually looks aesthetically pleasing.  Second, since a new box is generally free of rust and dents, it’s unlikely to require any initial effort to fix it up.  Third, because the container is at the beginning of its life, it will require less maintenance during the initial period of use.

New Containers Also Allow You To Make a Quick Decision

Selecting a new container can be a very quick process – because new containers differ so little from each other, a buyer will not have to spend hours at a depot inspecting various containers and making mental tradeoffs.   For instance, when comparing two used containers, you may have to decide between one that has a door that closes a little awkwardly, but with a great floor, and another that has a poor quality floor but great doors.  This can make the purchasing, and decision-making process, a challenging one.  If you are in a hurry or don’t feel comfortable choosing between containers of varying quality, simply selecting a new one can give you the peace of mind that you have purchased a solid product.

New Containers Are More Likely to Be Certifiable

To be deployed for freight purposes on a shipping container vessel, a container must first be certified.  Most used containers are not certified, and although it is possible to get them certified, they may require substantial work to correct deficiencies before certification can be obtained.  New, “one-trip” (i.e. containers that have only made one trip overseas after being manufactured) containers are typically already certified.  You can check for this certification by looking for, and examining, a metal plate on the end of the container.

Buying Used Shipping Containers is Hard to Beat for Value

All that said, at the end of the day a used container, chosen wisely, is hard to beat for value.  Your best bet is to simply identify a supplier with a depot that has a variety of used containers – personally inspect them yourself – and pick the one that you feel has the right qualities for your application.


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