boxouse is closed.

I'm sad to share that Boxouse is out of business. It was an adventure with quite a bit of literal blood, sweat, and tears. Hopefully you can learn from our open source CA legal shipping container home plans (released CC BY-SA 4.0) and make slightly better mistakes in your own housing innovation adventures:)

What Happened, Short Version

We made spaces people wanted to rent but not buy, and we didn't raise enough money to purchase locations for new rental units ourselves. Even with beneficial changes to CA laws for backyard houses, permitting makes it double the cost and 10x the time for us to build a fully-legal boxouse: guesstimate 20-40k and 6-18 months just for the permit fees, utility hookups, processing time, etc. We figured out a way to get boxouses legal at the state level as Factory Built Housing, but by the time I finished this process I was pretty much out of money and motivation. We never did go through a full permitting process for an install with our state approval or otherwise; I think but am not sure that the state approval would reduce cost and time by 10-50%.
While boxouse as in shipping container homes for sale didn't work financially, I'm excited to see other experiments with small private spaces and shared communal spaces. There are real businesses to be built here that are better for people and the planet than our private apartment status quo.

Longer Story, With Financials

Heather and I started boxouse as a business after realizing we were far from the only ones who wanted affordable, small housing in a shared environment where we could build things. Our friend Kirsten made a flattering video of our first Bay Area container space (I'd previously built one container home as basically a spare room in the back of my home in Austin):

We rented the quarter-acre space for $1k per month, later expanding to the whole half-acre triangle at $2,000 a month. At its peak, we made ~twice our cost in rent from charging friends to park/place their weird small homes on-site. A hoarder tenant abandoned a ton of stuff there; the fee to dispose of it ate up a lot of the profit. But, we had a move-out party there with enough flames that the fire department showed up twice in one night!. And, the city complained about us in emails I received via Sunshine Act requests (batch1, batch2). Here's my favorite part:

Now, the triangle is a 2-story dog day care center. Karmic revenge on the neighbor who threatened to shoot our dogs, and a nice symbol of gentrification:)
We bought 3 .1-acre parcels with some friends (+ a large loan), and for a few magic months we had a dream tiny home utopia. Building, living, covering our costs, growing some plants, and chickens!
And, angry neighbors. One even started a petition against us:

(the rotting waste was not human waste: it was fish emulsion a partner was using to try and bind to any lead in the soil)
We relocated our production to a nearby warehouse, focusing more on the art space side of things:

At its peak, this made ~6k above its cost monthly and provided free space for us to build our boxouses.
People were happy to rent our airbnb on the street for around $40 per night:

And, others rented 2 units in a courtyard we had for $1200 per month, each.

I made one of the containers tint its windows with voice commands:

This seemed important at the time;)

Funding: 280k
We were lucky enough to get into Y Combinator, resulting in some more positive press and leading to us raising a total of $280k.
Rental revenue: ~50k
We had 1-4 units for rent over the ~2 years, usually full and bringing in an average of 1200 per month per boxouse. I lived in one, not charging myself rent. We didn't charge boxouse "footprint rent" for the containers to use the spots in our courtyard.
Sales revenue: ~84k
People were not willing to pay very much for boxouses. Our highest was ~18k, and our lowest was a barebones model (less expenses) for ~5k. On average, we were ~12k per for sales of the 7 we sold. People typically opted for partial builds, prefering to do interior finish and appliances themselves.
Total revenue: ~134k
Total funding + revenue: 414k
Expenses: ~489k
We were able to build a total of ~11 boxouses, with a variety of options ranging from fully-legal as CA-permitted factory built housing to little more than insulation and framing.
Materials: 166k (15k per)
Here's our (very rough) bom; our average cost per boxouse was approximately $15k in materials (=165k into boxouse materials).
Labor: 66k (6k per)
It's hard to estimate labor per container, but I'd guesstimate it was 200 person-hours. We paid ~$30 to workers per hour, so labor cost was at least $6k per container (=66k+ into boxouse labor. For the beginning ~month, we didn't pay ourselves; for the last year or so, I didn't pay myself and was the only one working on boxouse.).
Our salaries: ~120k
Heather took a salary for ~6 months out of her year+ working on boxouse, and I took a salary for ~18 months out of my 2.5 years+ working on boxouse. Our salary was 5k per month each.
Delivery / install: 33k (3k per)
Each container required some time and materials to install, often including truck, crane, forklift, etc. rental; this came in higher than hoped, at ~$3k+ per container (=33k+ into boxouse install).
Tools: 84k
There were plenty of relatively-inexpensive tools, ~50 at an average cost of 200 each (=10k smaller tool overhead). Our 2 forklifts (for moving containers around warehouse and onto trailers) cost a total of 12k. We were lucky enough to have Big Jim, a friend with a large crane, to help out when our 6,000-pound forklifts couldn't quite hack lifting our ~10-14k-pound boxouses.
The truck + a rental for when it caught fire (literally) added another 10k.
3 trailers for moving containers ranged from 2k for a hacked-together one up to 6k for a ready-to-go container trailer. In total, ~14k for trailers.
The most expensive tool? Our spray foam machine + accessories (foam trimmer, remote air system, etc.). It's super-nasty in the 24 hours until it dries, but then it's an awesome R5+-per-inch wind-and-water-tight closed-cell-foam. I consider this the key to doing container conversions that don't have condensation issues and are comfortable in a range of temperatures: I took one to Burnign Man and was able to keep it comfortably in the ~70s via its rooftop solar system. But, the foamer wasn't cheap: this set us back ~40k.
Company overhead: accounting/taxes, company formation, web hosting, etc. ~10k
Permitting: ~10k
There were some interesting hacks to save costs: rather than paying 20k+ to an architect and another 20k+ to a structural engineer, I did most of the work myself and then found contractors on Upwork to review + stamp it for me. Here's the giant pile of paperwork (structural calculations, QA manual, etc. all under CC BY-SA 4.0); I hope you can work off of it for your container project or other interesting real estate thing!
Net (funding + revenue - expenses) = 414-489 = $-75k. Plus a couple years of our lives:)
(I'm not shutting down owing vendors or anthing like that: I personally covered the losses to everyone but investors.)

Conclusion

Containers are useful if you care a lot about portability, stackability, and speed of conversion: you can move them on highways, stack them 8 tall in hurricanes, and go from a bare box to livable boxouse in a few weeks. If you don't care about one of these, containes probably don't make sense. Unless it's for your weird Blade Runner meets Stacks cyberpunk aesthetics; in that case, go crazy. Someday, I'll build my 40' container balanced atop a 20', anchored only to the upper corners of the 20-footer...

What's Next?

There's so much room for innovation in how we live! Some friends and I (thanks Freeman, Ria, QJ, Raphael, Wilson, Alix, CPR, and everyone else who helped) had a great time designing + building Pod Mahal, an 18-unit popup apartment building at Burning Man 2018.

We made our own structural insulated panels, other people seemed to enjoy it, and we can pop it up at future parties in a couple days. Cost, including buying the pallets + trucks to transport + mattresses etc. to roughly finish out came to around 2k per unit. Like boxouse, Pod Mahal is just scratching the surface of what we can do with tiny homes. I'm excited to see what you come up with!

For me, I'm going to try farming regeneratively with friends and robots. There will probably be tiny houses involved at some point, but they won't all be containers and they won't be the main focus.

Questions?

Feel free to drop me a line. Don't expect a quick response, but I'll try to get back to you if it's something I haven't already answered here.

Finally, here are a ton of pictures of boxouses. Enjoy, then get to work on your own tiny home creation!