Log-home: buying

Choosing a Company

There’s a system to how log homes are designed and built.

THE FIRST STEP toward buying a log home almost always is to choose a company that sells the logs. This seems like an unusual arrangement to many people, who reasonably expect the process of buying and building a custom home to begin with either a builder or the designer not with the company providing the primary building material After all, if you’re building a Stud-framed home, you wouldn’t start at the lumberyard.

Of course some people do begin their log home by first contacting a builder or a designer. Sometimes these professionals are the ones who first suggest using logs. A few in fact have working relationships with established log-home companies. What makes this arrangement seem even odder is that many log-home companies don’t provide many more building components than the logs, and that even fewer will undertake to build the home.

The way today’s log homes are made and sold has to do with their origins as kit homes. Sawmills produced packages of logs and assembly components to sell to consumers, mostly as do-it-yourself projects, As the demand for more sophisticated log homes grew, it was these companies that handled the engineering of full-scale primary residences and developed designs exclusively for log homes. Over time some of these log-home producers grew to become full-service companies.

Today, these producers are the link between your dream of living in a log home and making it come true. There are dozens of companies to choose from.

Machined or Handcrafted

Logs are either milled, hand-peeled or hand-hewn Milled-log companies, or manufacturers, use machinery to cut and shape logs uniformly. Handcrafters use hand-held tools either to peel logs in the shape of the trees they once were or to hew them into squared timbers.

New companies produce both milled and handcrafted logs. Because of the interchangeability of cutting knives in high-speed woodworking machinery, however, milled-Log companies usually sell several styles. Besides their sales literature, some companies have websites, conduct orientation seminars and host plant tours to familiarize potential buyers with their lines.

The company directory starting on page 130 identifies North America’s major log-home producers Each listing tells w’hich w’ood species the company uses and something about its building system Before actually encountering the technical aspects, focus on the look of each company’s homes.

Visit any producers you can. Most are located closer to their trees than to their customers Some aren’t far off interstate (if you’re ever passing by, look for their billboard), but generally they’re pretty far from anything, including each other.

Comer Styles

How your logs intersect at the corner is one of the most defining features of your home.

Three parts of the country that do have particularly large concentrations of companies are western Montana, east Tennessee and south-central Wisconsin.

This issue also has a directory of builders and dealers. Many of them have sales models. In some cases, it’s the dealer’s own home. Dealers who have model homes may list open houses by state in the events calendar on our website, log-home.com.

When looking at companies, you may find that a particular dealer will influence your decision. A helpful dealer can smooth out a lot of problems that go far beyond just selling you a home. Many work with experienced log-home builders who know their company’s system. Some are even builders themselves.

Make sure you know the nature of these dealers’ business arrangement with the company whose homes they sell, especially who’s responsible if a problem arises. Some dealers work for the company, others are independent. A few companies don’t have dealers but deal directly with customers. This arrangement, while not as common as companies with dealers, is no hindrance to buying a log home.

Products & Services

Companies offer different products and services. Choosing one by comparing all these features might seem challenging, but successful log-home buyers agree it isn’t worth agonizing over. The feature that people say mattered most about the company they chose was that it established a genuine relationship that went way beyond a simple business transaction.

Most people get distracted by details. New terminology raises doubts. Keep your sights on the big picture. Find several companies that offer what you like and with whom you feel comfortable. Satisfy yourself that whatever the company touts really works. Ask to see actual homes that it provided logs for. Insist on ones that are at least five years old. Don’t just drive by; look them over inside and out. Familiarity with the way log homes are produced and built will reinforce your determination to own one.

Log homes, whether handcrafted or manufactured, are systems-built homes. That is, they are engineered and designed to be assembled using components that will ensure the home’s structural integrity.

It may help to think of log homes as pre cut kits that you could buy and assemble yourself following detailed instructions, even though not all log-home kits come pre-cut, and assembling the components is beyond the capability of most buyers.

No Best Way

Basically, the building system dictates how a log home stands up and how it withstands weather. Each producer has spent considerable time and thought developing a system that is different from its competition. Maybe this difference is great, maybe it’s minor; nevertheless, each system is designed to work according to its developer’s plan. The differences among these various systems lead to considerable confusion among prospective buyers. They see one system does something this way, another does it that way. They wonder which way is the best way. The truth is, no one way is best. If it works, it’s a right way — but there are many, many right ways. After all, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of different ways to cut these logs and shape these logs and assemble them.

The main point you should satisfy yourself about is how the system you are considering accommodates settlement caused by log shrinkage. Beyond devising a system to allow for settling, companies usually strive to make their logs more stable by drying them. This process involves bringing the freshly cut tree’s moisture content down to the level of the surrounding climate. The two methods are air-drying and kiln-drying. Air-drying means letting the logs season outdoors, much the way you might stack firewood to dry before using it. Kiln drying entails stacking logs in a large oven-like chamber and slowly heating them to remove the moisture. Both methods have their proponents. A few companies prefer to build with unseasoned, or green, logs. This method works well for those companies who use it. Some companies in the West prefer to use logs from standing-dead trees. This wood has already dried and works well in log homes.

Absent from this discussion is any revelation of which particular wood species is best for a log home. That’s because there is no best wood. Any of the two dozen species being used for log homes today will serve the purpose. Most are softwoods: pine, fir, spruce, cedar and cypress. A few companies offer oak. Companies use the wood they prefer (usually because they can get adequate supplies of it), although most companies can obtain other species, even premium ones, on request. Some homeowners may say they wish they had used another company or designed their home differently, but never has a homeowner complained, “I should have used another kind of wood.”

Protecting Wood More important than which wood you choose is how you protect it. Companies used to peddle log homes as maintenance-free. True, they don’t need painting, but wood exposed to the elements can set up a chain of events that eventually compromises the home’s structural integrity. Protection begins with good design, but that is rarely sufficient for long-term exposure to the elements.

Some companies dip or pressure-treat their logs with a sodium-borate solution before shipping them to the home site. This natural mineral repels insects and fungi but isn’t toxic to humans. Some borate products allow you to treat your logs after the shell is erected.

Besides borate-based products, there are wood coatings especially formulated to protect logs in use. Trying to save money by using something intended for another situation — protecting a deck, for instance — will require more frequent application just to achieve inadequate protection. These special formulations should include ingredients to repel water and protect against ultraviolet radiation; they may also include a mildewicide, insecticide and fungicide.

Protection, once applied, will generally last three to six years, perhaps even longer. Expect it to break down first on walls that are the most exposed to wind and sun. A southwest-facing wall will likely lose protection first. You can test for yourself by spraying outside walls with a garden hose. If the water beads, you still have protection.

One advantage of a log home is that if a problem area should develop, it will be visible, not concealed under siding. Regular vigilance will reveal spots that require prompt attention.

Any natural decay resistance characteristic of particular wood species is subject to two considerations. First, the decay resistance is usually a characteristic of the living tree, not always the processed log. Second, with adequate treatment, any wood can be made decay resistant. With lack of treatment, any decay-resistant wood can have its natural defenses overcome.

Some log-home companies grade their logs, indicating they are appropriate for specific structural uses in a home. There are two major grading agencies: Timber Products Inspection and the Log Homes Council. In addition, some companies have in-house grading programs, which may be more or less stringent than those of the grading agencies.

Package Deal

How to compare kits to get the best price quote for your logs.

PERHAPS THE MOST frustrating challenge facing log-home shoppers is comparing prices quoted by different companies. It seems that no two kits are alike. Each manufacturer has its own idea about what should be included in a log-home package. One’s standard item is the second’s option, and a third may not carry the item at all.

Complicating the picture is the fact that log-home manufacturers do not all use the same building system. What may be necessary to construct one manufacturer’s kit may not be required to complete another’s.

Here, then, is a method for beating a path through the thicket of kit comparisons without getting scratched. Most log-home shoppers are not experienced builders, so they often lack the detailed knowledge necessary to evaluate the completeness of a kit. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security by impressive diagrams or materials lists. If you’re not careful, you may overlook the one question necessary to obtain an accurate price comparison: “What will I need that’s not on this list?” Only by filling in the missing blanks for each kit you are considering can you discover which package offers the best value.

Areas that vary widely among kits: log dimensions (a tall, thin log requires less linear footage to complete a log wall than a shorter, thicker log); log gables (most include solid-log gables only as an option); window and door units (they range from cheap to top quality); sub floor system and dimensional lumber (they may be part of option packages only); exterior and interior door and window trim; interior framing; interior doors; stairs; stair and loft railings; interior partition wall coverings (rarely included in a basic kit price); soffit and fascia; shingles; exterior wood preservative; porch and deck materials (often part of optional packages only).

Trust the System

The secret to a realistic comparison is a systematic approach. First, decide what actually needs comparing. If your objective is a turnkey house (one that will be completely built and finished by a professional builder), comparing kit prices may be largely irrelevant. What the turnkey shopper needs to compare is the bottom-line finished house price. You can figure this by taking the kit prices with blueprints and material lists to the builders you are considering. They will provide a turnkey quote that includes all the work that you specify. All you need do is compare turnkey bids.

If you are planning to erect your own log package or act as your own general contractor, price comparisons are more difficult. First, make sure each quote has a detailed materials list attached. You must know exactly what you are purchasing. A good book on carpentry (not just log-home building) is invaluable because it can illustrate and explain terminology in the lists that may be unfamiliar to you. Break the material list into sections.

Often a seemingly more expensive kit actually is a better value because it contains a higher grade of certain materials.

Then set up a chart with sections and individual items in a column and names of the kits you want to compare in a row across the top. Next to each item, note whether it is included in the kit. If it isn’t, ask the kit manufacturer if that item will be necessary or desirable to complete the house. Then call a local supplier to get an estimate on it. Place that cost figure into your quote comparison. You can omit items beyond the scope of any of the kits (plumbing or light fixtures, for example).

Because manufacturers do not organize their materials the same way, it may be easier to establish your own section headings, such as First-Floor System, Wall System, Second-Floor System, Roof System, Interior Framing System, Dormers, Porches and Breeze ways, Decks, Garages.

Beneath each section, list the items necessary to complete that system. Under First-Floor System, for instance, list support posts, girder beam, sill sealer insulation, treated sill lumber, band lumber (to surround the sub floor), floor joists or beams, joist hangers (necessary in certain situations), sub flooring and finished floor covering (wood, carpet, vinyl, etc.). Don’t forget to list glue, caulk, nails, screws and other fasteners; all are necessary parts of the building system, too.

Crunch Real Numbers

Try to deal only in hard numbers. When you have to make an assumption about something, write it down and verify it.

If you are comparing a kit that includes a sub floor system with one that doesn’t, take your blueprints or a floor plan to your local lumberyard and ask how much a sub floor system costs that meets local building codes. Add this figure to the price of the kit that lacks a sub floor (don’t forget the cost of delivery). Now you have a better idea of how the two kits compare.

Your comparison should include the grade and quality of items that each kit contains. Often a seemingly more expensive kit actually is a better value because it contains a higher grade of certain materials. One kit may have a top-of-the-line window, for example, while another includes an inexpensive unit. One company may base its quote on an 8-inch-thick log against a competitor’s 6-inch log.

Labor costs to erect the package are another area for detailed comparison. If you are having your kit erected, get firm estimates from builders who can do the work. You may even be able to transfer some of the work of comparing kit materials to the builder. Instruct him as to the degree of completeness that you want. Tell him to include the price of any materials necessary to reach the stage of completion that are not in the kit. But beware! Should a builder neglect to include something significant (such as a sub floor) in your estimate, don’t expect him to eat that cost, even if it is his error. Instead, he may simply disappear, leaving you to pay for the missing materials and find another builder. The moral is: Have confidence in any builder before you turn over such a task, but be sure to keep a close watch and ask questions.

Delivery Charges

Don’t assume that dimensional lumber and items such as shingles purchased locally are more economical because of savings in freight costs. Most log packages are shipped by the truck load. It doesn’t cost any more to ship a truck that contains a half-load of logs and a half-load of other building materials than it does to ship that half-load of logs by itself. Because the buying power of the log company is generally better than an individual’s buying power (log companies often deal directly with manufacturers and sawmills), it may actually be cheaper to purchase even dimensional lumber, such as 2-by-4s, from the log company.

Avoid being wooed by offers of “free freight.” There isn’t a trucking company in the country that will haul a tractor-trailer load of logs free of charge. Log companies offering “free freight” are simply building the freight cost into their kit price. It may work to your advantage, or it may not. If the company offers “free freight up to 700 miles from the plant,” and you live 300 miles from the plant, you may be paying for 400 miles of additional freight. Keep your eye on the bottom line. A $30,000 package with a $3,000 freight charge means the same to your checkbook as a $33,000 package with free freight.

Another factor to weigh in any kit comparison is the log-home manufacturer and its sales representative. One company’s package may be slightly more expensive than another’s, but you feel more comfortable dealing with that company. How much is that peace of mind worth to you? One company may include on-site assistance, while another provides a detailed construction manual or video. Which is more important? And how do you include those factors in your cost analysis? The answers will depend on your personal situation.

Finally, consider your building circumstances. Perhaps you are hiring a builder or taking your vacation to erect your log kit. It is probably to your advantage to have all of your materials on site at one time, so a more complete kit may be more desirable. On the other hand, you may be erecting your log home yourself on weekends, working when time permits, paying cash as you go to avoid a large loan commitment. In this case, it may be better to purchase a more limited kit. Doing so avoids not only the larger cash outlay, but also costs and concerns for material storage and protection. Why pay in advance for materials that, once purchased, sit on the building site for several months before they are needed?

So consider your wants, your needs and your circumstances carefully. Research thoroughly and keep your eye firmly on your bottom line. You’ll be more confident in your selection of a log package. You’ll also gain a better understanding of what will be involved in putting up your log home, and you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from having a solid grip on this crucial part of your overall house-building budget.

Airtight Case

Log-homes’ proven energy efficiency goes beyond R-value

LOG HOMES AT FIRST GLANCE appear to be an unwise energy choice. Wood’s R-values pale compared with manufactured foam or fiberglass insulation. Log homes have the additional challenge of gaps, not just where windows and doors occur, but also where logs touch each other. These joints occur many times in log walls. From a performance standpoint, however, log homes boast superior joinery systems and sealing materials to assure exemplary weather tightness.

This disparity between low R-value and efficient energy performance revealed itself during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when many states enacted stringent energy-conversation building codes. Would-be log-home owners in many areas were denied mortgages or building permits based on low R-value ratings. Log homes built prior to the adoption of these energy codes presented conflicting evidence, notably testimonials by log-home owners whose utility bills were equal to or lower than their neighbors’ “stick-built” homes.

The log-home industry called for testing and a fair hearing for log homes to resolve the issue. The National Bureau of Standards responded by undertaking an extensive study comparing log walls, insulated and uninsulated stud-framed walls, and insulated and uninsulated masonry.

The results showed that log homes equaled or exceeded insulated stud-framed construction, the next best performer, during all seasons except winter. In winter, logs and insulated framing showed virtually identical energy use. During the summer, the log structure used 24 percent less energy than its nearest competitor. During spring and fall, log homes led with 46 percent lower energy consumption.

The NBS study substantiated claims by log-home manufacturers and enabled log homes to be included in federally backed mortgage-lending programs. Most importantly, it established log homes’ reputation for superior energy efficiency.

This reputation may have had some unintended side effects. Eager log-home buyers have stretched their energy-performance expectations for log walls beyond the results demonstrated in any testing. Some seem to have expected their utility bills to disappear altogether. Some people

— consumers and sales representatives — have let the study results stand as the final answer to the energy-efficiency question, without considering the influence of factors outside the scope of the NBS testing that can still have considerable impact — positive and negative — on the energy efficiency of a log home.

Boosting Performance

Areas of special importance that should be included in discussions of energy efficiency are design, construction methods, maintenance and house siting. Failure to consider these aspects when planning a log home may result in a house that falls short of its owners’ expectations, even though this failure is certainly no fault of the logs.

Proper design is important to the energy efficiency of any home. The wall and roof areas devoted to windows, doors and skylights have a significant effect on utility hills. Large amounts of glass on north-facing or constantly shaded areas carry a price tag in winter utility costs. Expansive cathedral ceilings, while popular, don’t contribute to energy efficiency, even with ceiling fans. Corners and roof intersections are notorious as points of energy loss. Houses with many corners and roof angles will have greater energy demands than simpler designs.

The location of fireplaces, another favorite log-home design feature, should be chosen carefully. Interior chimneys, which are protected from fluctuating outside temperatures, are more energy efficient than those located on exterior walls. An exterior masonry or stone chimney on a north-facing wall will place high energy demands on the home’s heating system in winter. Regardless of design, a good fireplace is less energy efficient than even a basic wood stove. Heating a modern multi-room log home by fireplace alone to comfort levels acceptable to today’s homeowner is simply unrealistic.

Roof overhangs affect not only energy efficiency, but also maintenance requirements. Wide roof overhangs protect log walls from rain and direct sunlight. Such protection helps to slow the weathering of logs, which in turn can reduce maintenance time and costs. Careful design and placement of overhangs can influence solar gain, providing advantages in both winter and summer. For example, a tapered overhang over south-facing glass in a prow front can shade the windows from the direct rays of high summer sun while admitting bright, warming light from the low winter sun. The result will be cooler rooms in the summer, warmer ones in the winter.

Building Tactics

Construction methods and log system design can significantly affect utility costs. Corners and joints between logs must be carefully sealed with materials that can withstand log shrinkage and the seasonal movement that normally takes place. Construction details designed to accommodate settlement should be engineered to prevent seals from being compromised as logs settle or settling adjustments are made. Cathedral ceilings made from tongue-and-groove should be backed by a good vapor barrier. Depending on house size, there may be several thousand feet of joint in one tongue-and-groove ceiling. Foil or paper facing on fiberglass insulation isn’t up to the task of preventing air movement through such a ceiling; however, large foam-core panels are effective insulators with minimal connecting points.

Hybrids Gain Popularity

Just as hybrids have improved gas mileage for automobiles, so the concept has energy-efficiency implications for log homes.

The most common hybrid form is the half-log, or super-insulated, home, which has been around since the 1970s. It originated to add comfort in cold climates, but its design versatility made it popular in moderate climates.

As the popularity of log homes grew in the early 2000s, homebuyers discovered that hybrids allowed them to modify the log look, using logs non-structurally to add character and style to homes. Homeowners who choose this method also say it makes finding a builder easier.That’s why this type of home and feel has established itself as a legitimate log-home style.

There are definitely some monetary advantages to hybrid log homes, which typically cost less than a handcrafted, full-log home.

Routine maintenance is vital to getting optimum energy efficiency from a log home. Exterior log sealant should be applied regularly as needed. Houses fully exposed to sun and wind usually need more frequent attention. Exterior caulking should be checked periodically, and torn or stretched caulking replaced. Large checks in logs should be caulked to prevent them from filling with water, which can lead to decay and air and water infiltration. Seals around windows and doors should be inspected periodically, replacing or touching up caulking and chinking as needed. While log-home maintenance requirements are few and usually simple procedures, failure to adhere to them can result in a substantial energy loss.

House siting is an often overlooked area affecting log-home energy efficiency. The type of lot and house placement can have an impact on energy efficiency measured in utility cost dollars. As already stated, houses exposed to sun and wind will require more energy than houses in sheltered settings.

Another consideration is your energy source. Power generated by sun, wind and geothermal systems costs substantially less than that provided by utilities and fossil fuels, regardless of how efficiently that power is applied. By installing off-grid and other alternative systems, you’ll reap the benefits, notably savings, from the outset.

So, are log homes energy efficient? If you look beyond mere R-values and measure actual performance, taking into account all the factors that affect energy use when planning and building the home, the answer is definitely «yes».

Finding Financing

Building a log home requires two kinds of loans.

ALL TOO OFTEN, we figure out how much we think we can budget for a mortgage and expect a lender to agree. Unfortunately, financing doesn’t work that way. To get an idea of how much a lender will approve for financing, multiply your annual income by 36 percent. Next, subtract the money you spend each year for paying down debts (car loans, student loans, credit card balances) and for taxes and insurance on real estate. The answer is the amount most lenders believe you can allocate toward your monthly mortgage payment.

To confirm your status, arrange to get pre-approved for financing. ‘The process varies from a simple telephone interview to a detailed inspection of incomeverification documents.

It’s important that you find a lender who understands the marketability of log homes. Lenders who make standard loans only on existing conventional home purchases may not be very interested in lending on an unbuilt custom home because their appraisers may not be able to find comparable homes to determine potential resale value once the home is built. Lenders whose experience is limited to conventional homes may not understand how log homes are built. If they believe log homes are still cabins in the woods, for example, they may feel uneasy about making a loan on one.

To satisfy lenders’ requirements for making loans on custom-home projects, you’ll need additional documentations: construction drawings, soil and other tests, permits, supply list, budget, log producer’s information sheets, builder’s list of qualifications on similar projects. If you intend doing much of the work yourself or if you’re going to be the general contractor overseeing subcontractors, expect to produce documentation verifying your qualifications.

Two Kinds of Loans

Knowing how much of a mortgage loan you qualify for is crucial, but it’s far from being the whole story. Building a log home also requires a construction loan. As its name implies, this loan covers the cost of actually building your home, from site preparation to certificate of occupancy.

The construction loan usually carries a higher interest rate and a shorter payback term than a conventional mortgage loan. Its appeal to the borrower is that it entails paying only interest. When the home is built and approved for occupancy, the mortgage loan pays off the construction loan and takes over the financing of the finished home.

When you apply for a construction loan, you’ll need certain documents in addition to your own financial statements. Among these items are proof you own the land where you’re building, a sales contract from your log producer and a receipt for your deposit on the package, final blueprints and specifications, estimates or bids from contractors and subcontractors, and a building permit.

If borrowers have trouble getting financing, it usually involves the construction loan. Some banks shy away from them because they involve more risk. Unlike mortgage loans, construction loans have no dwelling to secure the loan and sell if the borrower forfeits, only an assortment of building materials and possibly land, if the borrower used the property for collateral. The risk is even greater, in most lenders’ eyes, if the borrower is the person who’ll be performing or supervising construction.

The ideal situation is finding a lender who’ll handle both your construction and mortgage loans. A few companies even specialize in both types of loans specifically for log homes.

After an appraiser uses final plans and specifications, regional property values and comparable existing homes in your area to develop a value figure for your proposed home, the lender determines the loan-to-value ratio (usually 90 percent) and issues a commitment letter that indicates formal approval for the loan. This letter is required before construction funds are approved because it guarantees that the construction loan will be paid in full by the long-term mortgage loan when the home is completed.

The final step is the actual closing of the loan. All terms are legalized, and papers are signed.

Draw Schedule

A characteristic of construction loans is the draw schedule. This involves scheduling payments over a specified period of time to meet expenses as they occur. Such an arrangement ensures that wrork is performed according to a schedule to turn the building materials into a home. The number of draws and percentages of the loan disbursed vary according to the terms stated by the lender. For instance, some lenders will pay for the log package on delivery; others may withhold payment until it is actually erected. Be sure the terms of your construction loan are in accordance with your log-home producer’s requirements so that delivery and erection proceed smoothly.

A typical draw schedule might call for four to six payments, spread out to cover site prep and foundation excavation; the cost of the log package after it’s delivered, erected and under roof, and the windows and doors have been installed; after the electrical wiring, plumbing and heating-cooling systems are installed and approved, cabinets installed and interior doors hung; and the balance after the remaining interior work is finished and the occupancy permit issued.

When the home is built and approved for occupancy, the mortgage loan pays off the construction loan and takes over the financing of the finished home.

Regardless of how your draw schedule is arranged, the lender will inspect the progress of work up to that point and approve the disbursement of funds. In some cases, the lender may withhold the final payment until you have lien releases from the contractor and all subs.

Self-discipline is required with regard to change orders. It is tempting, once construction is under way, to decide to fine-tune the project or even upgrade the finishing work. But the loan was based on carefully calculated figures. There’s always going to be some wiggle room, and you should have a contingency set aside for unanticipated expenses, but indulge yourself during the planning stage, not after the project has begun.

If you’ve tied up all your cash and need some money for contingencies and to pay for materials or labor before the first scheduled draw, you can apply for a bridge loan. This interim measure may be a small commercial loan or a home-equity loan on your existing residence.

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