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Real Estate

Building a log home is one of those dreams that just won’t go away for a lot of people.  Many start investigating the process only to discover that the accumulated costs of buying land, site work, and materials are only part of the formula; they still have to budget all the fixtures, appliances, heating, plumbing and electric. That’s when the dream gets put on hold. But really, this doesn’t have to be.  The advantages of purchasing a pre-owned log home can far outweigh the difficulties of building your own.

The first misconception many people have is that log homes are less expensive to erect than standard houses. Actually, the reality is quite the opposite. Log homes are built by hand, so labor is a huge part of the formula. As a very broad generalization, I would say it costs about 25% more to build in log than your standard custom home.

We built our own log home in 2002 and we're very happy with it. Luckily, we had deep pockets at the time and good fortune with the weather. Nonetheless, we were really under-informed! I'd like to share some of the things we learned along the way:  

THE LAND: Consider this: a vacant lot has a higher ticket price than the value of an equivalent piece of land with a building on it.  Once a house is built, the bank’s financial focus shifts from the acreage to the “improvements”, which is your house and outbuildings, etc. This seems counter-intuitive, but what it means to the buyer is that when purchasing a pre-owned house most of your money won’t be sunk into the land. In the Delaware Valley, it’s not unusual to spend $150K-200K on a buildable lot (around 2-3 acres or so, depending on the township's minimum requirements).  On the other hand, in the same region a pre-owned 3 bedroom log home on the same size lot will usually run between $400K-$500K. 

Remember that with vacant land, there just aren’t any bargains. If the land is impossibly cheap, beware! An inexpensive lot will most likely require a considerable amount of work to get it useable (How do you cross that stream?  How much of it is wetlands?  Is the property full of boulders?  How do you get equipment up there to dig into the hill?).  The more expensive the land, usually the more ready it is to be built upon. If you are lucky the septic is already installed, or at least an approved septic design is in place; an approved design will save you thousands of dollars (which will have been built into the cost of the land). The site work could easily cost $50,000 or more (bulldozing, well, septic and driveway) and a full basement could cost around $30,000. So between buying the land and the essentials not related to the building shell, you may have to commit as much as $250K before you even get to the log part.

BUDGET: We’ve all heard horror stories about log home owners who terribly underbudgeted their project, or ran into unexpected difficulties that pushed their bank account into the red.  It seems that running over budget is the rule rather than the exception.  Even an extended period of bad weather could jeopardize your carefully calculated expense sheet.  People don’t always think about the little things like light fixtures, doorknobs, grass seed (which needs to be planted before you get your last construction loan draw), trenching electrical service from the street to the house, a walkway to the front door, the stain, the cost of the chimney pipes for your wood-stove/s. It all adds up. We decided to stain the house ourselves to save money, and eventually gave in and rented a cherry-picker to reach those dizzying roof peaks ($4500/week, ten years ago). 

Now take a look a pre-owned house.  If the property is wooded or there is a long driveway, someone else has already paid for clearing the land and installing the drive. Someone else has already put in the septic system, dug the well, planted the grass and done your landscaping for you.  Most of us can only afford small trees and bushes; I would say it takes a good five to ten years for your landscaping to mature.  Some previous owner did the staining, caulked the checks, and painted the window frames. With luck, your predecessor knew how to maintain the logs.  If not, you can build the price of corn-blasting and staining into your bid, and end up with a house good as new.  One thing is for sure: in the purchase price you are containing your costs and don’t have to deal with uncertainties.

YOUR LABOR: Staining the exterior is a given. On new construction you can do it yourself to save money, but you might not realize how many coats your house will take the first time…and how many weeks it will take if you have a regular job!  What I didn’t envision was how much staining I would have to do on the inside of the house.  Every door, every door frame, every window frame came unfinished.  Sometimes people stain their own flooring, but watch out for construction dust!  By the time our unfinished staircase was delivered, I was ready to throw in the towel.  I admit that I never did get to those last baseboards; now I admire the unfinished look!

For the first two winters after our new log home was constructed, we spent a lot of time wandering around the house with caulking guns in hand.  Although our milled home fit together nice and tight, there were chilly drafts everywhere. Every interior check that stopped at a window frame, every junction of log to tongue-and-groove, every exterior corner offered the wind an opportunity to find its way into the house. I spent much more time on a ladder than I ever anticipated.  By the third year, we had pretty much solved the draft problems!

RESALE: Experience has shown that for the most part, the resale value of a log home is not much different from that of a normal house – even though it cost more to build. This is hard for the original owner to swallow, because often they overbuilt the house. It takes a lot of labor to build that house by hand, install tongue-and-groove ceilings and walls, and many log homes come with fancy windows and fireplaces.  In the end, those expensive extras are just that: expensive extras that cannot be recovered.  To the lending bank a 4-bedroom house is a 4-bedroom house, and they really don’t care how much it would cost to rebuild.  Nonetheless, this is certainly a benefit for the buyer!  You are paying market price for a custom house that probably has higher quality construction than the house next door.

Of course, if you purchase a pre-owned log home you probably won’t get exactly what you want (as usual when buying any pre-owned home), but the money you have already saved could be directed toward updating an older kitchen, putting in a hardwood floor or adding a family room

YOUR HOMEWORK: There was a big log home building boom in the ‘80s, and I see quite a few houses from this era, which means that many of them are into their second or third owner.  I don’t think it’s a big stretch to imagine that the second owner has not put in the amount of research that the original owner would have done.  They might not know how to care for the logs, how often to stain or how to recognize that the old stain is worn.  This can be where your knowledge from this magazine will come in handy, and you will know what to look for when inspecting the house. 

So if you are lucky enough to see a pre-owned log home come on the market, do yourself a favor and take a look at it.  You might find that the home already contains elements you couldn’t afford to build yourself.  Or, conversely, you may have a reasonably priced starting point from which to expand.