16 June 2015

How to Import Materials from overseas for a Tiny House

After much research we have chosen to import the house insulation from China. There are a number of reasons for this choice which will be detailed in following posts. One of the reasons we chose this route was to educate ourselves further on the subject of importing and trust me we did! In this post I want to share our experiences with others that may want to import materials from overseas. We have done this once so we are by no means experts, but I think we have some knowledge that will help.

First off, I know it sounds crazy to import house materials from a country you have most likely never set foot in and don't speak the language. The internet and websites like alibaba and aliexpress have brought people closer and created a global economy that even an individual building a tiny house in the back yard can access. Dont get me wrong its not quite as easy as heading down to your local DIY store and picking want you want off the shelf, but if you follow the process it is not super hard.

So why would you want to import from overseas?

  1. May be able to source product at a cheaper price. 
  2. May be able to access a product that is not available in your country.
  3. May be able to source products of better quality.

1. Research

So the first step is to research what is available in your local area or country. In our case we are using polyurethane foam insulation (more on this later) which is the most expensive item for our tiny house. If you have time and maybe it's a big ticket item it is worth researching abroad to see what is available and how it compares. The following are the major web sites which can help you. 

ebay - online auction site, generally for one off purchases, available in most western countries
aliexpress -a global retail marketplace targeted at consumers worldwide, designed towards low volume.
aliababa - platform for global wholesale trade, designed towards quantity.

We were after quantity so alibaba was the site of choice. The rest of this post is going to detail how the alibaba process works so we would recommend internet searching the other platforms if that is your chosen path.

2. Investigation

At this early stage it's worth searching the product you are after in the search box and see what the deal is. We searched 'insulation panels' which produced many hits. From there pick out the results that look worth investigating. There is often an indication of cost which should give you idea if this approach is worth exploring.

Alibaba search and results page

3. Determine specifications

If you decide this approach might be worth pursuing it's time to look at the details. When we were determining our specifications we had to consider what we needed out of the materials we would be purchasing, for example we needed to consider the likes of how thick and how dense we needed our panels to be. Scanning appropriate materials/products and getting an idea of necessary requirements was crucial for moving the project forward as the next step involved much more definitive specifications.

4. Contacting suppliers

Once you have a good idea or what you are after it's definitely worth contacting suppliers using the alibaba contact form on the product page. You should state what you are after in terms of specifications. We stated thickness, density, measurements and quantity. Because English is not always peoples first language  it's worth using simple, clear, plain English. We found suppliers were very quick and helpful at replying to questions, in a lot of cases it was better service than you would receive in NZ. We didn't take too much notice of the minimum order quantity for each supplier, and found that some suppliers were willing to provide lower quantities than they had stated.

Alibaba supplier product and contact information

5. Liaising with suppliers

From the first contact you will quickly gauge whether your requirements are possible or if they need to be reconsidered slightly, you will also work out whether that particular supplier is someone you want to work with by how accommodating they are and whether they seem capable of providing what you need. By asking questions we learnt a lot about the manufacturing process and we did adapt our requirements a wee bit along the way. We narrowed down the suppliers to six that were suitable for the quoting stage. You will find some suppliers will email you direct using your alibaba registered email address. We found it better to use the alibaba message center because it was easier to keep tabs on all the different people we were talking to at once. We also think it's good to keep all communication in the alibaba system just in case it's needed if things go pear shaped later on. We found the alibaba message center quick and easy to use.

Alibaba message center

6. Quoting

By now you will have a good understanding of your final specifications so it's time to ask for a quote. State the specifications and make sure you ask how much it will cost to ship to the country you reside in. During this process you will most likely get hit with some abbreviations you have never heard of relating to terms of delivery.

FOB - Free on Board

The cost of shipping the goods to the departing sea or airport including customs clearance is met by the seller. The costs to freight and land the goods to the destination country is meet of the buyer. That is they get it to the port at their end and the rest is your responsibility.

Ex Works

The responsibility and cost is on the seller to get the goods from the manufacturer's factory or depot all the way to the destination country. That is the cost and organisation is totally on the buyer.

The manufacturer will usually ask what delivery method you require. We ended up using FOB because the manufacturer preferred this method. We found that at this stage it was best to use FOB as our delivery option so that all the quotes we received were accurate and we weren't hit with unexpected costs later. It is possible to look into using Ex Works further down the line. We will talk more about this in a later blog post.

7. Select a Manufacturer

Next it would be time to select a manufacturer, but before you do that we think it would be worth reading our next blog post to ensure you increase your chances of getting the product in time, within spec and without getting ripped off. We will delve into our own bad experiences and explain how we resolved our issues and ended up with great results which we hope will benefit you guys with future purchasing.

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