Are Shipping Containers for Sale Wise Investments?

April 9, 2019

There’s not a shred of doubt in our minds shipping containers for sale are good value. Many other pieces of company equipment like computers and furniture end up in the junk yard.

This makes them cost centres not assets. They end up being worth little more than scrap despite all the money we spend maintaining them.

Now buying a container, that’s another matter. They last longer. You can make or save more money than they cost, and still have an asset you can sell. We dedicated this article to our favourite topic, containers. We wanted to explain how they are great money-spinning opportunities that could add real value to your business. Stay with us while we reveal the amazing things our customers are doing with the containers we sell.

Did we get your attention? Then let’s dive in with a summary so you can decide if this is something you really need to know about.

Let’s Mine Those Nine Issues and Discover What We Can Learn

1. Problems and pain points to buying a used container that are easy to avoid

Shipping containers come in different lengths, although the width is the same, so they can stack them on ships and in depots. They measure in feet because the U.S. Army invented them in their current form.

Most containers are 20 feet (6 meters) and forty feet (12 meters) give a few centimetres. You can’t bend them or fold them, and they're not super easy to manoeuvre. We sometimes run into challenges when delivering containers as the site is either not easy to access for the truck, doesn't have enough space for the actual container, or there may be obstacles overhead.


!! Avoid not thinking things through and measuring up

There are a number of factors to consider with regards to measurements. You don’t only need footprint space for the actual container, but you also need space for doors and windows to open, electrical connections, and whatever other bells and whistles you may want added to your container. Then, you also need to measure up and make sure that there’s enough space for the truck to access the drop off site, and that any overhead objects are far or high enough out of the way for when the container is offloaded from the truck.


!! Avoid purchasing a race horse if you need a donkey

Pricing for containers depends on a number of things, one being the quality of the container. The better the quality or condition, the higher the price. If your requirement is customer facing you may want to consider buying a more expensive unit, but if your requirement is out of site, like storage in the back yard, then aesthetics is less important if at all.


!! Avoid not thinking through transport

Other than the obvious costs related to transporting containers, there are other practicalities to consider. For example, the days and times that the pick up point or drop off location can be accessed by the transport, do they allow after hour access. Also, what type of truck do you require? A simple flat bed with no handling equipment, or do you require a crane truck to help with offloading on site?


!! Avoid not thinking about the little things

Containers are often used in a greater ecosystem, and the compatibility of this relationship needs to be well thought through. For example, if you using a refrigerated container then you need to check that you have the correct power supply, and if you using a normal dry container for additional storage during peak season then you may need approval from the landlord or park manager to store containers on site for an extended period. It's worth really thinking through how the container fits into the broader reality and making sure all the boxes are ticked.

2. Where to buy a container and why some sellers are best left alone.

It makes sense to purchase a shipping container nearby where you are, transport will cost less and just in case, for some reason, you need to send it back.

Life can be a pleasure if you are nearby a container depot, which can generally be found in all port cities such as Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London, Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam, etc. because that’s where unwanted empty containers end up. You could also try your luck at an inland depot such as Johannesburg’s City Deep.

If you're not close to a depot, then the transport cost becomes an even bigger factor and can make or break the business case. So remember to include that cost in your breakeven / profit forecast before buying a container.

Think twice before sinking your money into a container. There are a number of fly-by-nights, scammers and other weird and wonderful operators out there. Spend some time making sure that the supplier is reputable. You also want a supplier who can help you if you land in a pickle, not someone who simply sells you the container and then leaves you to resolve any issues on your own.

The applications of used shipping containers for sale are endless and there are no doubt more applications yet to be discovered. As opportunities are explored, it's worthwhile visiting this site to find more container specifics and make sure nothing is missed.

"Online shopping makes everything so much easier - it's a bad habit of mine."

- Hungarian Model Barbara Palvin

3. Possible reasons why you are interested in shipping containers for sale

Shipping containers have become the mainstay of the international transport industry because of their go-anywhere standardised nature. However, they can’t last forever out there on ocean waves where they stack ten and more times high on the decks of ships.

That said, they are still solid and strong. And they are also still suitable for ‘landlubber’ use if you don’t mind a few dents and scratches. Here’s a grab sample of the innovative uses our customers put them to after buying a container from us.

  1. Low cost affordable housing in which each one serves as a room or student dorm
  2. Spaza shops at busy taxi stops where their stout construction makes them almost thief proof
  3. Temporary ablution facilities at construction sites and outdoor sports arenas
  4. Realistic scenarios for firefighters learning to combat indoor fires
  5. Many construction companies buy a container for a site office
  6. Refrigerated containers make great cool rooms at outdoor expos

We hardly scratched the surface of what you can do with these versatile products. They even join up to make holiday homes in remote areas. However, they are not yet regarded as habitations in South Africa’s cities, so special permission is necessary.

"Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement."

- Physicist, Priest William Pollard

4. How buying a used container can be a profitable smart investment

If you were to acquire a new shipping container and get it into the international shipping system on a lease you might achieve a gross return of 10% to 12% a year before expenses, if you had no downtime. However, this is unlikely because the market is over traded and international commerce is not exactly humming.

That said, here’s the gap. There could be a great opportunity to rent a container or two in your home town or the domestic market. Why’s that? Often there is a degree of uncertainty associated with any new project or venture and so the driver of these new ventures is looking for ways to mitigate risk, and so they would be keen to look at renting containers from you until the concept has been proven, at which stage they would then invest the capital they require.

Sometimes it may just be a cash flow issue. The concept has been proven, but there's no capex available. For example, the government will rent containers from you for temporary school toilets, classrooms and clinics because it cannot afford the capex cost for permanent buildings.

If you are in any project-related industry then it may suit you to buy a container for your own use. That’s because you will always need site storage or a temporary office nearby. The beauty is you can set it down anywhere there is a serviced site. This reduces sundry costs associated with projects down the line.

Plus, when you don’t need it, and you're prepared to get creative, there are always guys looking for short term storage locations and so you could rent your container out to them until another use crops up.

"Rule No.1: Never lose money. Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1."

- Warren Buffet

5. Four things you need at the front of your brain before making a decision

So you’ve got your finger on a button to buy a container, but you know it costs a truck hire to send it back if you made a mistake. Our years of experience chatting with customers tell us these are the four most important key touchpoints.

1st Touchpoint: Understand the different grades of container that are available. Check the grading template or photos out carefully if you are unable to select your specific container. You may have a vision in your mind, and this will probably differ from reality. You need to manage your expectations.

2nd Touch Point: When the container is handed over to the customer or customer’s transporter, this is your last chance to inspect. Scratches and small dents are no big deal. However, obvious corrosion could signal deeper problems. Open the container doors. Do they work correctly, are the gaskets and seals in order? Ask the attendant to shut you in the container. Things should be pitch black. If you see points of light ask why.

3rd Touchpoint: Consider the transport factor. Generally speaking, companies that sell containers offer pretty competitive transport prices, but you may want to check these with any local contacts you may have.

4th Touchpoint: Shipping containers for sale are priced out of the depot in advertisements, to make them seem as cheap as possible. Remember to factor in the cost of any improvement you may wish to make such as paint, and any on-site requirements like installing plinths to set the container down on.

"We have to distrust each other. It is our only defence against betrayal."

- Tennessee Williams

containers for sale

6. The payback on containers you've bought

This is the big question uppermost in many peoples’ minds when thinking about buying a container.  Shipping containers for sale in fair condition could last up to ten years if you maintain them properly. Remember, they spent their formative years on ships battling gales and salty, corrosive waves.

We can’t run the exact numbers here because circumstances vary, containers differ, applications may be intensive or light, etc. but with that said, and just to give you an indication, you can work on an average payback of three to four years to get your creative juices flowing.

As an entrepreneur, your sixth sense will give you a sense of what the payback will be. Art is a science and science an art. Take the best of both.

"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The Sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus."

- Alexander Graham Bell

7. What you can do with different types of shipping containers for sale

There are a wide range of shipping containers in use to meet every need of the lucrative transportation business on the ocean, on the railway line, and on the road.

These containers provide a high level of protection to their contents while in transit. This makes them ideal for many other purposes after they ‘retire from active duty’ far out to sea.

Standard Dry Storage Containers are the general purpose ones we see most arriving and departing our harbours. Standard lengths are 10ft, 20ft and 40ft. They have a double door opening at one end.

When you buy a container of this type you’ll find it modifies easily into a small building by cutting out openings in the sides and fitting standard doors and windows. Their uses are almost endless. Think offices, stores, meeting rooms, and ablutions on construction sites, for example. People increasingly turn them into houses.

Flat Rack Containers enable easy loading as they don’t have sides or roofs: Even the ends drop away to become ramps. They make great platforms for transporting large vehicles safely. However, there are also inventive uses for them on land.

That’s because they are ideal for transporting bulk goods without having to tranship between vehicles. Pallets of bricks and lintels both spring to mind. Once they reach their destination these are already tidily stacked making buying a container of this type a smart move.

Open Top Containers have roofs that remove easily to allow transport of large items too tall to fit into standard ones. They are a near-perfect application for shipping livestock without the ventilation problems associated with standard ones.

We find farmers buying a container like this and using it as an instant storage dam or dipping station for livestock. We've even heard of them being used as swimming pools, and recharging tanks at fire stations. The opportunities are endless when you buy a container.

Tunnel Containers have double doors at each end to facilitate loading and offloading in the same order. They are also popular as shared containers for people emigrating because their service providers can change the delivery sequence.

These shipping containers for sale also serve as entry and exit points at rural sports stadiums. We have seen them used as overpasses for pedestrians across roads, as subways under railway lines and other hazardous situations.

Open Side Storage Containers enable easy loading and unloading of palletised goods such as bricks, blocks, cement, fertilizers and animal feeds. Once the doors are closed they remain weather dry and are almost impossible to rob on the move.

When their shipping days are done they make perfect portable stages for rock groups and settings for community events such as weddings, baptisms and funerals. In fact any occasion you want to make as inclusive as possible.

Refrigerated ISO Containers are almost always used for shipping perishable vegetables, fruit and meat over long distances. In fact, all you need do is connect the electricity after buying a container of this kind.

Therefore, when you buy a container in this category, you have a function caterers’ dream in your hands. We have supplied a number of them to fast moving consumer goods retailers and popular fast food outlets to tide over holiday seasons when demand tends to peak.

"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The Sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus."

- Alexander Graham Bell


8. Containers are heavy things. What if you have to move them around?

There are a number of ways to move containers, from putting rollers under them to connecting wheels and a tow hitch to the more traditional methods like using trucks. It all depends on the local legislation (what is permitted), road surface, distance, and a few other things.

The safest is to use the tried and tested, therefore, we’d rather recommend using industry standard counterbalance lifting trucks and transporting equipment. If we were loading an empty container on a flatbed for a client we would use a heavy duty forklift.

The situation is somewhat different at a container yard where operators use straddle carriers, reach stackers, and top loaders. Gantry cranes can stack higher which is why you see them at container ports.

If you are delivering a container or planning to receive one after buying a container the trickiest bit can be offloading it at the other end. The agent will need clear space to set it down, and you need to plan this carefully so you have utilities nearby.

The driver basically has two choices unless you just happen to have a heavy duty forklift or can borrow one.

  • Deliver on a flatbed with a container lifting crane behind the driver’s cab
  • Use a tilt bed transporter, lower the back end to the ground so it slides off

"Hindsight is always twenty-twenty"

- Film Producer Billy Wilder

9. Does it matter if a used container has a few dings? What to watch out for.

When you buy a container that was used for shipping please don’t expect something as perfect as a brand new car from a famous brand. Those booms and clangs coming out of container yards at night witness to the robustness of the shipping industry.

They also evidence the incredible structural strength of the containers themselves. However, the metal for the sides and top is relatively thin to save weight. This, in turn, is possible because the girder corners bear the weight.

Therefore, it follows that you may find two types of damage when inspecting shipping containers for sale in a commercial yard. Look carefully for signs of a corner buckling or distortion of a horizontal member.

Buckled containers are no longer suitable for secure stacking and therefore should not be used for shipping goods. However, if appearances don’t put you off they could still do an honest day’s work in several of the roles we mentioned.

Dented side panels and roofs, on the other hand, should not affect structural strength unless extreme. With a little redecorating they should turn up looking good. Be extremely wary of severe corrosion though. Our recommendation is don’t touch it if you looking for something that is wind and watertight.

"Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover "

- George Elliot’s Mill of the Floss

Do You Still Doubt Shipping Containers are Wise Investments?

We surely hope not, because we went to a pile of trouble to demonstrate they are the answer if you want a less-expensive portable building you can adapt and move around.

A versatile structure that adapts to you - as opposed to a building that’s a fixture despite your needs changing at the cutting end of your business.

We do hope you found this article worth reading, and that you gained fresh valuable insights into our world of containers: An exciting world where you could achieve so much more now that you know how the business works.

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