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by Bob Brooke

There's no denying a log home's appeal. It has a solid, down-to-earth quality that touches the very heart of the American spirit. At first glance, they offer an inviting environment. But, romantic notions aside, how do they compare with traditional suburban homes in price, living space, and energy savings? Are they suitable for contemporary living, or are they best left as rustic cabins in the woods? A hard look at log home construction shows that a change has taken place over the past 15 years—log homes have come out of the woods and into the suburbs.

"Although the cabin image still lingers in most people's minds, log homes aren't just cabins anymore," said Fred Baker of Militia Heritage Log Homes of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. "Engineering, computer-aided design, and technology make log construction a legitimate housing style for today's suburban families." In fact, 90 percent of all new log houses are built as primary residences.

"I know people call them log cabins out of habit," said Jerry Rouleau, spokesperson the Log Homes Council(LHC), a part of the National Association of Home Builders' Building Systems Councils in Washington, D.C., representing over 60 of the country's leading log home producers. "I know that recalls an historical association that makes them appealing because I respond to the country appeal myself, but it doesn't even begin to describe today's homes."

The 21st-century log home is anything but a dark, drafty, rustic cabin. It's a thoroughly modern house built with logs instead of studs. Perhaps this is where the confusion arises. "People don't understand they're talking about a method of construction, not a style of house. It's a custom house that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years." Rouleau added

Log homes have always been a part of the American scene, but they became increasingly popular during the "back to earth' movement in the late 1960s. In response to this popularity, new producers entered the market--with over 450 at present--selling their homes as do-it-yourself kits to people looking for an inexpensive house and a way to get closer to nature. As the "earth" movement evolved into the more sustainable and permanent "country' lifestyle movement, people began to think of log homes as their primary residences.

Rustic or contemporary, the allure of wood is still the main reason most people build with logs, according to local dealers. Today, nearly 450 companies sell most log homes as precut packages or kits by over almost 450 companies. While many of these companies market their kits to a limited local or regional market, many sell through a network of local dealers or distributors, such as Fred Baker of Fort Washington, who represents Heritage Log Homes, of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Donald K. Boalton of Boyertown, who represents Asperline, of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.

These dealers act as an answer-person and a troubleshooter for the buyer, helping with cost estimates, building permits, finances, construction techniques, and such. "I recommend that homeowners act as their own contractors," said Baker. "Some of us are builders, and, in my case, I employee a special crew of log home builders from Kentucky to erect the outside shell."

Formerly, owners built 75 percent of all log homes. Today, less than 25 percent are and owners customize over 90 percent of them, according to Rouleau. The typical 2010 log home has over 2,000 square feet of living space compared to 1,100 square feet 15 years ago. Most have two bathrooms, every interior amenity imaginable, from balconies to whirlpools, and at least one exterior wall filled with big windows. It costs, on average, the same as a comparable frame house. Today’s log homes are also airtight due to advanced tongue-and-grove joinery and modern sealants and gaskets. Pioneers determined the size of their log cabins by the length of the logs available, today's log homes come in a variety of styles--A-frame, rambler, two-story, ranch.

"A developer even tried to build a development of log homes in Medford Lakes, New Jersey," said Baker, "but not enough homeowners wanted log houses to make that feasible, so it went bankrupt. Log homes are suited more for individual wooded lots that show the house off."

Most of the people who choose a log home do so because of the homey, comfortable feeling solid wood gives them. "Most people think of themselves as putting down roots when they build a log home. They see it as something of quality and permanence they can leave their children." said Dana Delano, president of the LHC.

"Log homes are the fastest growing segment of the custom-built real estate market today," said Delano. "They do extremely well compared to the appreciation and resale of other types of custom homes."

The log home market--which represents a two billion dollar segment of the custom-built, single-family housing market in the U.S., continues to find emphasis shifting from first-time buyers to existing home owners moving up to larger residences.

A recent survey conducted by the LHC showed that the typical log home buyer is between the ages of 25 and 45, married with children, has at least some college education, is employed as a manager or a professional and has a household income of about $40.,000 a year. Factors that most influence the purchase of a log home, according to the survey, in order of preference are exterior appearance, high quality construction, interior appearance and saving money by helping with construction.

While some buyers do simple jobs to help control costs, most people buy a turn-key operation. They just unlock the door and move in when the house is done.

"Existing log homes appreciate and sell well because a lot of people attracted to them don't want to build one from scratch," said Rouleau. "Log homes appeal to well-educated professionals who look to separate their private lives from their public lives. They may not want to live rustic lives, but they definitely want to escape the city and live in a secluded, low-key environment."

Another booming market for the log home industry is the move-up buyer. Typically, this is a married couple in their mid 40s to early 50s whose children have grown. Building their dream home is an important part of the plan. Today, many people are using the equity in their conventional houses to finance the purchase of their dream log home.

But the log home market isn't limited to the U.S. More and more log homes are being shipped to the Orient, especially to Japan and Taiwan. Asperline is one of the largest distributors to the Orient. "While our biggest trade to Japan was a few years ago, today our surge is to Taiwan," said Linda Galliher, Asperline's international administrator. "Previously, we shipped over 2,000 homes a year, most of which were our smallest model of just over 1,000 feet."

"Today, we're designing resort type developments," she added. "One of our greatest achievements is Yangs Wood, a 50-room hotel on Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan and one of the largest log structures in the Orient. We've also done quite a few Taiwanese golf clubhouses. Germany and Spain are our largest European markets, so far, but we're just now closing a deal with Turkey."

Statistics show that 84 percent of log homes are built in or near metropolitan areas. "The majority of owners build their log homes on five acres or less," said Boalton. Baker said his are on at least two acres.

"The perception is that log homes compete with modular homes," Baker said. "While both are manufactured, there's a great deal of difference."

There are two types of log home manufacturers: hand-hewn and precut. Hand-hewn handicrafters are, for the most part, skilled artisans who cut a custom log home with hand-held tools in time-honored fashion. Typically, they cut down the trees, hand peel and notch each log in their yard, assembling the house as they work, then they dismantle the house and ship it to the owner's site, where it is reassembled. Often, they'll do all the work at the site, itself. This puts the cost of a handcrafted log house at the high end of the scale.

Unlike handicrafters, the precut manufacturers use machines to cut and mill the logs to uniform lengths and profiles. The automated process allows for consistent quality, speedy production, and, thus, a lower package cost.

Modern log technology enables manufacturers like Asperline and Heritage Log Homes to mill solid timber into a sophisticated array of profiles and contours(the shape of the log when viewed from the end) that give log homes a more conventional look. These profiles include both the traditional natural round log and the square-hewed log, as well the D-shaped log (rounded on the exterior but flat on the interior) that gives the home a traditional log look on the outside and a paneled wall look on the inside.

Baker recommends that his customers buy a complete turn-key package. This contains nearly everything necessary to build the exterior and interior of the house from the floor joists and the roof system to the doorknobs. Some companies, however, sell walls-only and structural shell packages. While this may seem more economical for the homeowner on a budget, it may prove to be a bigger headache in the long run.

"Generally, Asperline offers a basic structural shell package first and then the homeowner can add or subtract from it, customizing as he wishes," said Boalton.

Most companies offer packages in a wide choice of styles and sizes, from a minimum 1,000-square-foot model to a veritable mansion with over 27,000 square feet. Also, the choice of wood is a factor. Cedar, spruce, pine, fur and larch, in that order, are the most desirable for log construction. The kind of wood used affects the cost of the house, and different companies use different woods. Asperline uses Northern white pine and western red cedar. The same model built in cedar instead of pine would be 7 to 10 percent more.

The days of joining and sealing logs with mud and sod are over. Today's manufacturers use a variety of high-tech building systems. Whichever one a company uses becomes its trademark. This includes the method of joining the logs, decay prevention, and sealing the cracks between the logs. It might also include the log profile, the roof system, and the way the doors and windows fit into the house.

To ensure a weather-tight fit, most manufacturers mill their logs to lock into one another along their entire length. The most common methods are tongue-and-groove construction, Swedish cope (a round log with a concave bottom), and the spline and groove. To secure the logs together, manufacturers use spikes, lag bolts, dowels or thrubolts (going from top to bottom of the wall). The logs are then sealed with foam gaskets, chinking and caulk to keep out air and moisture. In addition, most companies treat their logs with wood preservative to prevent decay.

The main difference between a log house and a frame house, according to Baker, is that builders construct a log home's walls by stacking logs on top of one another, while a conventional home is built by framing it in with studs, stuffing it with insulation and covering it with siding and wallboard.

The average price of an 1,800-square-foot log home kit today is $75,000, nearly twice that of fifteen years ago. A complete turn-key operation can begin at $162,000 and can go as high as $198,000. "President Clinton has restricted logging in the West and this has raised the price of materials for log homes," Boalton said. "And although is takes $6,000 to $8,000 more for wood that goes into regular frame houses, logs must be center cut and every one has to be of the best quality."

"Putting a package together takes 9 to 12 working days," said Baker, "but the total time for occupancy is usually the same as for a regular house--five to five and a half months."

In a recent survey of log home owners by the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, resale and appreciation values of log homes exceeded those of conventional single family detached housing by more than 15 percent. Log homes appreciate rapidly with annual rates exceeding 20 percent, while the average annual increase in housing values nationwide for all housing has been between only 5 and 10 percent.

"The high rate of appreciation is also explained, in part, because log home owners add improvements after moving in," said Delano. "And because they've become mainstream houses, they're a lot easier to mortgage, insure and sell."

However, because log homes are specialty houses, buyers still face a more complex financial situation than do buyers of conventional site-built homes. While builders of conventional homes often make financial arrangements for conventional buyers, log home buyers must obtain a permanent mortgage commitment from a mortgage company before they can obtain a construction loan from a bank.

Financing has also been made easier due to Fannie Mae's easement of its comparable appraisals requirement in favor of unique and special houses, including log homes. Now when a log home is appraised, it can be compared to other special homes in the area, and not just to other log homes, which, up to the last five years, were scarce in any given area.

With all the emphasis on modern log technology, the biggest change in the industry has been the effort of its manufacturers to upgrade their products, according to Rouleau. "Fifteen years ago there were a great many companies who produced mediocre kits and promoted them with over-zealous claims. Now those companies have been culled out of the industry. Today, enormous competition has produced an intense emphasis on excellence. Also, computerization of log home design has helped manufacturers produce a log home for modern living.

This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Business Journal.

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