In the previous post’s comments, Missy asks, “How does one in Panama get a shipping container? How does one get a shipping container delivered? Do you get a used one in Panama near the canal? Are you going to do all the welding?” Good questions. Here’s the story.

(Subject to the changing nature of Panamanian reality — I recently read a quote by Helmuth von Moltke, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Not that Panama is the enemy. It certainly isn’t. But personal resiliency is key here. Vital, in fact.)

I recently read a book titled, “The Box.” It is the story, written by an economist, of how the invention and development of the shipping container changed the world. Stevedores used to swarm over many docks in many ports around the world. Every item, whether a coil of wire or a crate of widgets, had to be moved from factory to truck to transportation center to truck to railroad to truck to dock to dock storage to dock to ship, then reverse the whole process to the ultimate recipient, handled by hand at each transfer. Delivery of your goods was slow,  expensive, lacked security, and the goods were often damaged.

Enter Truck driver Malcom Mc Lean in 1956 who saw a better way. Over the next years and continuing on to today, fortunes were made, lost, and made again. Thousands of stevedores lost their jobs and hundreds of ports closed as The Box made shipping fast, economical, safe, and did I say, fast. Huge specialized mega-ports were built and often closed without ever being used as a newer, faster, better port was built a few miles away. This continues at this moment today, as the widening and third set of locks of the Panama Canal changes everything again. New ports, such as Houston and others over on the east coast, are now readying to take traffic away from the old mainstays such as Long Beach and Oakland in California.

Now, as the World economy shrinks, and especially that of the United States, fewer containers are in motion making the trip from China to your local BigBoxMart. And, with the economy the way it is, it is often cheaper to make a new container in China than to ship an empty one back from Kalamazoo. The empties are stacking up around the world, mostly at the ports. In Los Angeles, they are stacked so high, that sunrise in some residential neighborhoods is an hour later. No, really.

Armed with this knowledge, I know there are millions and millions in surplus, and with this knowledge, it is a buyers’ market. This reminds me of when I was 16 years old. Looking for a piece of wood for a carpentry project, I went to a local woodworking shop. I spotted the scrap cutoff box and asked the owner, “Hey mister, is this wood all scrap?” He replied, “Yes boy, it is, until you want a piece of it!” So life tells me they aren’t going to give me six of them for free, but neither am I going to buy them as if they were gold plated.

Which brings me to Missy’s first question, “How does one in Panama get a shipping container?” Connections, Missy, connections. Everything in Panama is about connections. One day I was talking with Ramiro who is the caretaker at the estate across the street from our current house. I practicing my Spanish, and he practicing his English, we came to the point that he has a friend who works at the port in Colon, and he would call him for me.  Colon is the larger of the two ports, Panama City being the other. Ramiro came back to me later that day, saying I could get them for $4,000 each, FOB Colon. This is a very good price for the seller, but as my great grandfather is said to have said, “It all depends on whether you are buying or selling the pianni (piano).” From my research on the Internet, I see that $2,500 is a fair price in the States, and given that labor is so much less here, I figured that $2,500 would be a fair price here. Delivered to my lot. This also happens to be right in our budget. So I asked Ramiro to make another call, this time with my $2,500 delivered price. I told him that this is all we have, and if we want to be able to buy and install windows and doors in the boxes, then this is a true statement. The new price came back at $3,000 each, delivered. Back in his court, $2,500. Delivered. I figured that having $15,000 cash in hand was a powerful incentive, and indeed, the price was set at this number. Now, I fully expect the price to have “gone up, when the time comes to place my order” but there must be a hundred dealers of used containers, and the first one who puts his hand out for the money gets the contract. It is still a good fair price.

I’ll go to Colon to inspect the used containers, record the serial numbers, then the “successful contract winner” will put the six containers on six trucks and deliver them to our lot. I will have to get a crane at an extra expense, probably around a thousand dollars I figure, as there are none in our area.

After they are delivered and installed on the concrete piers, I will weld them together and cut out the window and door areas with an angle grinder with a metal cutting blade and/or a plasma torch. I can get a Man With Welder for $25 a day and/or do it myself.

Then the real fun begins.

7 thoughts on “Connections

  1. In Seattle they are changing the train yards around because of building developments and road changes. The railroad is using railroad side spurs all over the city to stack containers and bring in fork lifts to load the containers when needed. Where there were big yards with empty containers I notice now many are gone.

  2. Hello there, really enjoying your story. I am trying to purchase 6 shipping containers in Panama, not for a build but for temporay commercial use. Do you have the contact or pointers of where to get these?

    (I will continue reading your blog at home as this is really interesting)

    Many thanks

    • Hi Kat,

      Sorry for the delay in noticing your comment. I usually get an email whenever a new comment comes in, but this time I didn’t.

      I got the containers at the Port of Colon, Panama. The port in Panama City doesn’t seem to sell them. I have heard that my contact is no longer doing this, so no, I don’t have a contact. I paid $4,000 each, delivered and hoisted onto my columns by a crane. I’m not sure what I would do if I needed more. Sorry.

      Thanks for following our story. More soon! Fred

  3. Hello Fred & Cynthia..

    My name is Saulo and I am writing you from Brazil. Today I decided to write you because got very curious about container homes and discovered your blog. Saw many ideas and many pages with information about this. Btw, sorry for my English ok? It is not my first language here (Portuguese) is the language here. Well, I am reading your blog now from the first post and would like to know somethings before continuing reading this.
    Questions here:

    1- where in Panama are you living with your wife?
    2 – Where can i buy supplies to build a Container home there?
    3 – Easy to find people to help us in the region?
    4 – Maybe I need to read again the first post (project post) but it is necessary to legalize the house?
    5 – I worked in my city with projects during 5 years ( I am a technical buildings) and here we work in cm/meters and there?
    6 – Land/lot are expensive? some information about where I can buy some? Company? Some friend? You?

    That is it for now and hope to get answers as soon as possible (if you want).

    I am making plans to go to Panama in the next 2 years on vacation and maybe for some investiment there (land/lot) in the future soon.

    Hugs from Brazil

    Saulo Bitencourt is my e-mail and facebook too..

    • Hello Saulo, Thank you for your comment. I have been so busy getting ready to move into the new house, so sorry for the delay in answering you.

      You questions:
      1- where in Panama are you living with your wife?
      A.: We live just outside of El Valle de Anton, in the mountains about two hours from Panama City.
      2 – Where can i buy supplies to build a Container home there?
      A.: We bought our containers at the port in Colon, Panama. We paid about 4,000 U.S.$ each, delivered from the port to on top of our columns at the building site.
      3 – Easy to find people to help us in the region?
      A.: Yes, easy to find workers such as welders, but they will not know what to do without very tight supervision. I think that you would have to have a deep knowledge of what you want done and communicate that to the workers every day. If you are not on site, you will not get what you want.
      4 – Maybe I need to read again the first post (project post) but it is necessary to legalize the house?
      A.: Yes, even though I had drawn a very detailed set of plans, we still had to hire an architect who redrew them and had all the government stamps applied. The plans cost me $5,000.
      5 – I worked in my city with projects during 5 years ( I am a technical buildings) and here we work in cm/meters and there?
      A.: Both cm/meters and inches/feet work fine here. Panama is actively changing everything to metric though. Gasoline has been sold by the gallon, but the switch was just made to liters.
      6 – Land/lot are expensive? some information about where I can buy some? Company? Some friend? You?
      A.: There are several local real estate agents in the area. Raw land cost between $3 a meter to $100 per meter depending on where it is located and whether there are utilities available.

      By the way, your English is just fine.

      Best regards and have fun with your future plans. Fred

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