Shipping containers are sometimes abandoned or unclaimed at ports for various reasons. This leaves shipping companies and port authorities with the containers, which take up valuable space. 

After a certain period, they auction off the containers and their unknown contents to recover their costs. In this guide, I will provide tips on finding these auctions and successfully bidding on shipping containers.

Unclaimed Shipping Container Auctions: A Complete Guide

Why Containers Get Abandoned

First of all, you might ask why containers get abandoned. Well, there are several common reasons why a shipping container may go unclaimed and end up at auction: The importer can’t afford to pay the customs duties, demurrage fees, and other charges to claim the container. This could be due to going bankrupt or simply not having the funds. 

Errors or omissions in shipping paperwork prevent the release of the container to the owner. The intended recipient rejects the container due to damage or discovering unwanted goods. They refuse delivery. The owner goes out of business altogether and abandons their cargo at the port. Contraband is discovered within the container, leading to a seizure by customs authorities. 

Why Containers Get Abandoned

Whatever the reason, containers that go unclaimed eventually end up in the hands of the shipping line or port authorities. To recover costs, they auction off the containers and contents.

Finding Auctions for Unclaimed Containers

Finding auctions for unclaimed freight takes some digging, as shipping companies directly sell to frequent buyers. However, there are still ways to find them: Contact major shipping lines that run through nearby ports like Maersk, MSC, CMA CGM, etc. Ask when their next auction is scheduled. 

Search for upcoming auctions on sites like AuctionZip and BidSpotter, which list government and commercial auctions. 

Check Craigslist and eBay for listings in your area, searching for terms like “shipping container auction.” Network with regular auction-goers and salvage buyers who may get invites to closed auctions. Try broad internet searches for “unclaimed freight auction [your city]” to uncover any leads.

Finding Auctions for Unclaimed Containers

Inspecting Containers Before Bidding

It’s important to conduct a thorough inspection of containers before placing bids, ensuring you make well-informed choices. Make sure to arrive early on auction day to have ample time to examine each unit. Check for any signs of wear, like dents or rust. 

If possible, gently shake the container to get a sense of the contents’ weight and their stability inside. Be attentive to any sounds of items shifting. Use a flashlight to clearly see inside dark containers. 

Also, check the door hinges and locking mechanisms to confirm you can easily access the inside. Lastly, take note of any unusual smells, which could indicate the presence of spoiled or damaged contents.

Bidding Strategies and Tips

When bidding at a shipping container auction, it’s beneficial to have a well-planned strategy. Before you start bidding, set a firm budget based on your inspection results and transport costs. Keep in mind that you might have to pay duties. Begin with conservative bids to gauge the level of competition from other buyers. 

If you win, be ready to promptly move the container from the port to avoid storage fees. Additionally, think about teaming up with other bidders to share the costs if the container contains several complete units.

Payment and Pickup

Once you win the auction for an unclaimed shipping container, you will need to finalize payment and arrange for pickup. Most auction houses accept major credit cards, wire transfers, certified checks, or cash as payment. Be sure to confirm the payment methods and any additional fees before bidding. You will likely need to pay within 1-3 business days of winning the auction. Coordinate pickup of the container as soon as possible, as storage fees may apply after a short grace period. 

Depending on the auction house, you may be able to arrange your own transportation or you may need to use their approved movers. You can expect to pay $150 to $300 to ship a 40-foot container within 50 miles (please check with local shipping companies to get an exact quote).

Payment and Pickup

Ensure you have the equipment and workforce lined up to quickly load the container once it is on site. Carefully note any timeframes, requirements, and restrictions around pickup stated in the auction terms.

What You Can Find Inside Containers

While it’s impossible to know exactly what a mystery container holds, some finds are more common than others:

  • Brand new consumer goods like electronics, furniture, clothing, and appliances  
  • Industrial equipment like generators, pumps, and mechanical parts.  
  • Partial retailer inventory like home goods, hardware, and automotive supplies  
  • Personal goods from overseas moves like furniture and boxed household items.
  • Construction materials like lumber, rebar, and roofing supplies.  
  • Food items like grains, flour, and canned goods may be nearing expiration.

Tips and Precautions

There are several important factors to keep in mind when buying unclaimed shipping containers at auction. Thoroughly inspect the container before bidding – check for damage, signs of tampering, and indications of contents. Research import regulations if transporting the container internationally. Have a plan for unpacking, storing, and reselling the contents. The items may span multiple categories requiring expertise, so consider partnerships. 

Be realistic about the required time, labor, transportation, and other costs that can eat into profits. Storage fees add up quickly if the container sits, so line up buyers or consignment shops in advance. While containers can contain hidden gems, they can also contain junk or be mostly empty. Weigh the risks and do not get caught up in bidding fever. 

Review all auction terms closely, and do not assume you can return the container if you are unsatisfied. If you carefully check the containers, keep your expectations realistic, act quickly, and have a little luck, buying unclaimed shipping containers can give you unique items for your business.

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