Log Home Basics

It’s no secret that we’re hot for log homes, and there are a few things that people should know before they invest in one.

First, there are two basic types of log homes in our market, log and log-sided. The log-sided versions are also sometimes described in the MLS listings as “frame/log.” With log construction, the inside of the log is the inside paneling, and the log itself provides the structural frame that supports the cabin. With log-sided houses, a conventional frame is built, and log siding is attached to the exterior. Tongue-and-groove paneling is usually used to finish the interior. With log siding, therefore, you have conventional insulation between the exterior and interior walls – it’s basically a “stick-built” house. On a log house, the log itself is the insulation, and the R-value depends on the thickness of the log.

You can usually tell the two apart quite easily, because a log cabin will have the logs criss-crossing at the corners, while a log-sided cabin with have tidy, square ends. Be aware, however, that builders sometimes employ an “end kit” to give log-sided houses a “true log” look. In our market, almost all of the log houses constructed are log-sided when they reach the second story. I’ve seen very few log cabins that carry the logs all the way up to the roof, and the reason is simple – cost.

There are advantages to both types of construction. Advocates of true log construction say that log cabins are quieter than other types of construction, and they cite the “authentic” qualities of log construction. While this is in some ways a dubious claim, because today’s log cabin is in fact a highly engineered product, there is an undeniable charm to a true log house. On the other hand, log siding is a more conventional build, and it is usually cheaper. You don’t get the same shrinkage and movement problems that log cabins must be engineered for, and you don’t get the same moisture problems that can exist with poorly engineered or installed log cabins. Any contractor who can build a conventional “stick-built” house should be able to handle a log-sided project, while log construction requires a somewhat different process.

In our market, with the exception of some high-end, round-log cabins, the materials for which are usually imported from the west (Montana, for instance), most of our log cabins are pine, and most are built from kits, not from logs cut and hewn on the premises. In the past, we had some cedar log cabins, but the cost of cedar has made this option nearly obsolete.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of log kits on the market. The differences extend to the thickness of the log, the shape of the log, and the method of joining the logs together. In one premium system, considered the best by one of our local home inspectors, there are actually large springs under the house at all four corners, to ensure that the logs remain tightly together as the cabin ages. Other systems allow for some adjustments, and in almost all cases, doors and windows are engineered to allow for a little expansion or shrinkage.

With true log construction, and with log siding to a certain extent, you must be prepared to accept a certain amount of checking (or cracking) and a certain amount of pitch dripping from areas that receive hot afternoon sun. This is less true of the round logs imported from the west, because their moisture content is very low compared to the local pine product. But for the most part, if you can’t convince yourself that those cracks and pitch drips are charming, you should not buy a log cabin.

Prospective buyers should know that log cabins are not maintenance-free. These days, they are usually finished with a Sikkens product that is fairly clear (there are several popular choices). This is a three-part process, and it needs to be applied correctly by a competent and honest craftsman. If it is not properly reapplied regularly, the exterior siding will darken, at which point, you might as well stain it brown, unless you want to have it stripped by sandblasting and refinished from scratch. In our climate, normally one side of the house will need attention every three or four years, while other sides may last five or more years. People who are scrupulous about maintaining the original look of their cabins reapply the Sikkens every three years. Others find it easier to let it go, and stain it brown when the time comes.

In our area, we’ve gone through several distinct generations of log homes. In the beginning, the middle 1980s, log cabins here were typically one-story affairs, and they tended to be small and dark. In the next generation, we had the idea of adding a loft to the cabin, creating a “great room” effect. Interiors were still finished rather dark, and they turned darker as they aged. In what I think of as the third generation, we moved to a more open floor plan, and a lighter interior finish. In the latest elaborations of this generation, the floor plan is even more open. The relevance of this to prospective buyers is that the older generations are becoming “functionally obsolete,” as we real estate people say. While I encounter some people who think the newer designs aren’t “cozy’ and don’t look “cabin-like,” most people love them. I’ve noticed that especially with my younger buyers, once they’ve seen the newer ones, they have no interest in the older ones that are less open and darker no matter how much more reasonably they may be priced.

Prospective buyers should also be aware that while we are now building some large log homes, usually about $350,000, that have some of the features of traditional homes, most log cabins have much less closet and storage space, smaller master bedrooms, and smaller kitchens than traditional homes. Laundry rooms are usually closets, and often are designed for stack units, which work fine, but have about 2/3 the capacity of the ones you have at home. It’s a fact that you can buy a traditional home in our market for less than you’ll pay for a log cabin. It’s also a fact that they have very little resale potential. The absorption rate for traditional homes, as we real estate people say, is just about zip. What it all means is that we’re hot for log cabins, and unless you are sure you’ll never want to sell it, you should think very carefully about buying a traditional home in our market.

If you want a deeper understanding of log home construction, the best reference I’ve found is “Log Homes Made Easy,” second edition, by Jim Cooper (Mechanicsburg, PA; Stackpole Books), 2000. There’s also an associated website, www.easyloghome.com. Cooper is a sensible guy, and there’s good information in here for anyone who is thinking about being his or her own general contractor. For instance, the immortal – and locally very relevant – sentence, “There are subcontractors in any region whose greatest skill is avoiding doing the work they agreed on for the price they agreed to” (page 7). If you’re thinking of building, see also my article on “Building vs. Buying.”


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