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Building vs. Buying

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Building a log home is one of those dreams that just won’t go away for a lot of people. My husband and I built our own log home, and we went through the whole. Depending on how clever (or lucky) you are with the plans, you might end up with the home of your dreams, or you might have some regrets and wish you had done a few things differently. In our case, it was a combination of both.

Source: Deposit Photos

Many people 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.

The cost of the land is a big consideration when calculating the total expenses. 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? Will it perc (percolate) for a septic system.  The more expensive the land, usually the more ready it is to be built upon. If you are lucky, an approved septic design is in place; this will save you thousands of dollars (which will have been built into the cost of the land but it removes the uncertainties). 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. Just to put things into perspective, eighteen years ago we spent an additional $350K to build our 2400 Sq.Ft. house.

Now take a look a pre-owned house. There are so many things we take for granted. If the property is wooded or there is a long driveway, someone else has done all the work. Someone else has already put in the septic system, dug the well, and planted the landscaping. On the other side of the proverbial coin, depending on the age of the house your kitchen might be ready for a make-over, you might have to install air conditioning, and it’s possible the logs might need a new coat of stain. Even so, it’s going to be a lot less expensive than building from scratch.

What does one look for when buying a pre-owned log home? As a Realtor, I know the initial questions:

Insects: This is at the top of the list. For the most part, log homes get a “bad rap”. Everyone is afraid of termites, but this is a rarity. Termites go after damp, rotten wood. A properly built log home will have several inches of concrete wall between the ground and the first course; in other words, the logs are not soaking up moisture from the dirt. You want to keep your logs dry. Hopefully the house has wide eaves; the rain shouldn’t drip onto the corners. If the log ends are wet, that could be a problem. Termites aren’t the only insects that invade damp wood.

Carpenter Bees tend to be the most troublesome critters. They chew perfectly round holes about ½” in diameter, then make long tubular nests inside the wood. The only way to treat them is puff insecticide into the hole then caulk it shut. The good news is they don’t like stained wood, so if the house is properly maintained, their nuisance can be kept at a minimum. Check for them around the eaves. (If you see large, irregular-shaped holes in the log, those are most likely made by woodpeckers.)

Source: Deposit Photos

Woodpecker damage

Exterior Finish: Log homes are stained, not painted. The stains come in many shades and even colors; the darker the stain, the more sediment it contains. More sediment protects the logs better from the sun; solar rays and moisture are the big concerns. When water no longer beads up on the surface, it’s time for a maintenance coat—or if the original wood surface shows through. Depending on the exposure, this will be about every three to five years per side; you’ll find that you don’t have to stain the whole house at the same time (unless it’s been neglected). If the stain is peeling, it has to come off; otherwise, a new coat goes on top of the old finish. Removal of the old stain can be done by a professional using a cob corn blaster (similar to sandblasting but much less abrasive). If the house is well maintained, this step won’t be necessary.

Horizontal cracks in the wall: When a log home is first built, the logs themselves usually continue to dry for the next couple of years. This creates pressure, and the log naturally cracks—or checks—during the drying process, relieving pressure. Some species check more than others, but it is a totally natural process and nothing is wrong. The structure is not weakened. 99.9% of the time the check will stop at the center of the log; it doesn’t go all the way through.

What about insulation? Yes, the log is the insulation.Logs work under the concept of thermal mass. The usual “R-Value” doesn’t apply here like it does with a regular “stick framed” house. Because the logs contain tiny pockets of air, they tend to hold the heat very efficiently; think of a down jacket. In the winter, the sun is absorbed into the logs then reflected into the interior of the home. So, for instance, if the power fails, a regular house will start cooling off immediately, whereas the log home will stay warm longer. One year, on the day before Christmas (at 18 degrees), our furnace failed and we were very comfortable for two days with two wood-burning stoves and a space heater in the kitchen. It was a good real-life experience.

Aside from the exterior walls, just about everything else in the log home is the same as any other house. There is no special kind of furnace or air conditioner, though people often find that log homes naturally stay cooler in the summer.

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. If anything, it might come out a little bit higher than an equivalent-sized stick-framed home. Much depends on the comparables in the area. If there are no log homes recently sold nearby—and this can be a real challenge—it can be difficult getting a good appraisal. Banks are by definition conservative. However, you will usually find that there is a good market for log homes, especially in rural areas considered ideal locations for weekend getaways—like Bucks County. Finding a buyer seems to be the easy part.

Regardless of whether you buy or build, living in a log home can be a satisfying experience. Many people are smitten the moment they walk inside, and the good news is that the love affair never ends.

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