The Log Cabin

Monday, August 16, 2010

Buy Your Log Cabin Now

It’s the right time to buy real estate. I know that from personal experience. Last year, I bought a foreclosed four bedroom two bath house in Marietta GA for $36,000. The previous owner had a $108,000 mortgage on the property. It was in reasonably good shape. I replaced the windows and gutters, added some kitchen cabinets, repainted and it is now renting for $900 per month. I’ll wait for real estate to rebound before selling it. Why not take advantage of the current foreclosure to acquire your log cabin vacation/retirement home?

I was inspired to write this article when I read an article in the Atlanta paper about a couple that did exactly that. The log cabin was located in Blue Ridge GA which is appropriately located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They had rented cabins there previously. They loved the town and surrounding mountain and forested area. The couple had been looking to purchase a log cabin as a vacation home for around six years. The article didn’t mention the final price but they found the right cabin for the right price. They are now spending weekends fixing it up.

Even if you’re not ready yet to move to the mountains, if you’re considering retiring to a log cabin, now is the time to buy. The timing is right but what if you don’t have the money? In addition to the investment property, I also bought some land in the north Georgia mountains through my self directed IRA. The property is owned by the IRA and I suffer no tax impact until I take control upon retirement.

Another option is to rent out the cabin until you’re ready to retire. There is a solid rental market for log cabins. With prices so low, you can charge rent to cover the mortgage, taxes and maintenance. My sister and her husband own a summer home up north. They vacation there for two weeks in August. They rent it out for the remainder of the summer. Even with a relatively short vacation rental season, they make enough money to afford the mortgage. You keep the eventual property value increase and have your retirement log cabin when you’re ready.

As the adage goes, ‘buy low, sell high.’ Prices for foreclosed log cabins are very attractive. Like I said already, now is the time to buy.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Log Cabin Flooring - Bamboo

If you’re concerned about the environment, you should be aware that bamboo is a renewable ‘green’ source of flooring for your log cabin construction. China, Indonesia, Viet Nam, the Philippines and Korea are the major sources of bamboo. As an environmental aside, pandas don’t eat the species of bamboo used for commercial products.

Solid hardwood is commonly used for log cabin floors. While a hardwood tree may take 100 years or more to mature and is destroyed when cut down for flooring, a bamboo plant remains alive and requires around 6 years to re-grow to a harvestable length. Bamboo actually grows one to three feet a day during its peak growth period. Even though it is officially categorized as a grass, bamboo exceeds a number of hardwoods in ‘hardness.’

Bamboo plants stalks are cut down and the outer green layer and shoots are removed. The remainder is boiled and ‘purified.’ Its natural color is light blond. The bamboo may also be pressure steamed to produce a darker ‘carbonized’ color that accentuates the grain pattern. However, this carbonization process reduces the hardness of the bamboo about 10%.

The bamboo logs are then sorted into ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades. Strips of similarly graded bamboo are first placed together either vertically or horizontally. Then they are glued together and high pressure is applied to form ‘blocks’. The blocks are then milled to form the final flooring planks.

Besides the natural blond and darker carbonized colors, the natural planks can be stained to produce a variety of other colors. You can choose the best color to complement your log cabin walls. Like hardwood boards, bamboo flooring is available in unfinished or finished options.

The Janka Hardness ratings for bamboo are 1380 for natural bamboo and 1180 for carbonized bamboo. The rating of natural bamboo is actually higher than red (1290) and white (1360) oak.

Bamboo flooring is typically tongue and groove manufactured. It can be nailed or glued to a subfloor. A floating option is also available to do it yourself handymen. It can be installed over concrete with a vapor barrier for a floating floor. There are also moisture barrier adhesives available for glueing down the bamboo flooring.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of bamboo flooring is the cost. It can be up to 50% lower that solid hardwood floors. I will certainly be investigating bamboo flooring when I make a choice for my log cabin construction.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Log Cabin Flooring - Solid Hardwood

Your log cabin is made from solid wood logs. Solid hardwood flooring complements and adds to the traditional look of your log cabin log walls. As the name suggests, the flooring is cut from a solid piece of log.

The harder the wood, the longer lasting and less susceptible to wear and ‘dinging’ it is. There is a hardness index (Janka Hardness Scale) that measures the relative hardness of different wood species. The chart below shows this rating for various popular flooring choices.

White Ash            1320
American Beech  1300
Paper Birch           910
Black Cherry         950
Cypress               1375
Douglas Fir           660
Hickory               1820
Hard Maple         1450
Red Oak              1290
White Oak           1360
Brazilian Cherry 2350

Hardwoods can be laid down in several styles. Most commonly, they are laid out in linear strips that are 2 ¼” or 3 ¼’ wide. Planks are wider pieces than are also linear but up to widths of 4” and higher. The narrower width strips provide a more formal look while the wider widths are more country looking and log cabin oriented. Finally, hardwood can be put down in a parquet style in which the pieces of wood form a repeated geometric design. The hardwood boards are manufactured in lengths between 1’-7’. The boards are ¾” deep.

Solid wood flooring is available in either unfinished or prefinished versions. Unfinished wood must be sanded and covered with several coats of finish after being installed. The finishing process takes several days to a week to complete. Prefinished hardwood has already been factory finished and is ready for use immediately after installation.

Solid hardwood flooring is sensitive to moisture. It is not recommended for placement over concrete, below ground level or over radiant heated floors. You can sand and refinish it up to seven times during its 80 to 100 year lifetime.

Hardwood flooring pieces are given a grade based on their appearance. Higher graded pieces have better uniformity of appearance. The grades in order of quality are:

Clear grade – has most uniform color, lack of blemishes and knots
Select & Better – has very uniform color, virtually no blemishes or knots
Country or Exclusive – differing color, small pinholes and tiny knots
Traditional, Antique, Character – light and dark color, pinholes, knots and small checks
Tavern or Cabin – light and dark color, pinholes and knots are quite evident

It sounds like from the grades that log cabins should automatically fall into the bottom grade ranking. To be honest with you, I agree. I won’t mind seeing knots and checks on my log cabin walls nor on my floors.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Log Cabin Flooring - Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring is another option for your log cabin construction. A laminate is a material that is manufactured by joining two or more layers of material together. The layers are combined with adhesive and heat and/or pressure. Laminate flooring was originally designed by a Swedish company named Pergo. It was introduced to the USA by Pergo in 1994. It is now the fastest growing flooring choice in America

Laminate flooring is made of four layers. The top or wear layer is typically made from cellulose paper that is soaked with melamine plastic resins. This produces laminate flooring’s durability and scratch resistance. The second or design layer provides the image that shows through the wear layer. It is made from cellulose paper that has a photograph or a print copied on it. The image simulates the look of wood, tiles or stone.

The third or core layer is made from a type of particle board and provides the bulk of the floor. The final or stabilizer layer is usually made the same as the top layer. The identical top and bottom layers help to prevent movement within the core layer.

Ease of installation is a major benefit of laminates. Like engineered wood, laminated flooring can be installed over your log cabin's plain or radiant heated concrete. Most laminate planks are made with tongue and grooved sides that allow them to be ‘clicked’ together. A foam or board underlay is applied to the application surface. A vapor barrier combination underlay product should be used over concrete. They are commonly installed as floating floors.

Laminated flooring is water resistant and therefore a good choice for your log cabin bathrooms, kitchen and laundry room where moisture is a potential problem. It is also durable and suited for high traffic areas.

The final benefit of laminated flooring is cost. It averages 20-25% lower than solid wood. If you install the laminate flooring yourself, your savings will be more.

Log Cabin Flooring - Engineered Wood

If you’ve decided to install wood flooring in your log cabin, you should consider engineered wood as an option. Although the word ‘engineered’ sounds somewhat less than real, engineered wood flooring is indeed constructed from all wood components. It has become increasingly popular as worldwide sales of engineered wood has eclipsed solid wood flooring sales.

Engineered wood consists of a 1/16” to 1/8” top layer of finish wood on top of layers of non-finish plywood. For additional strength, the grain of the plywood layers runs crossways to each other and the finish layer. This makes the flooring more stable and less susceptible to warping. Unlike solid wood, engineered planks can be glued to a concrete subfloor, installed over a radiant heat floor or installed as a floating floor. The plywood base withstands moisture that can cause buckling and rippling. I will definitely use it to cover my log cabin basement floor. The top layer is also pre-finished so that it is ready for use upon being laid.

Since the top layer is real wood, engineered flooring is available in the same species as solid hardwood floors including hickory, oak, maple and walnut. There also a ‘green’ option, bamboo. Bamboo has a distinctive grain and is technically a grass. The bamboo plant is not destroyed when it is harvested and unlike trees, it is a renewable resource.

Engineered wood can be placed in areas with light moisture. I have engineered wood installed in my first floor half bath and despite occasional water spills, it has held up well. Although I have seen it installed in the kitchen and full bathrooms of log cabins, I personally prefer the look and better water resistance of tile.

Having experienced engineered flooring in my current residence, I can attest that it is susceptible to scratching and ‘dinging.’ Unlike laminate flooring, it can be sanded to renew the surface. However, depending on the thickness of the finish layer, it can only be sanded one to three times. It is advisable to hire a floor professional specialist to do the sanding due to the limited depth of the top layer.

The cost of engineered wood is comparable to solid wood. However, if you glue down or use floating floor option, you can save money by installing it yourself. I will probably put down my own basement floor.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Log Furniture for your Log Cabin

If you like a log cabin for its rustic look, then you should consider log furniture when furnishing it. Each piece is unique and distinctive and provides additional natural charm to the inside the log cabin. Although more commonly used in lodges and ski and vacation cabins, there are any number of log furniture pieces that would enhance the appearance of any home.

Just like the cabin itself, log furniture can be hand crafted or machine manufactured. The manufactured logs still retain the natural wood look. The wood can be either peeled of bark, or skip-peeled where the inner bark of the log is not removed. The skip-peeled pieces are more rustic looking. The wood used is typically pine, white or red cedar or hickory. Log furniture is constructed for a long life. Unlike other furniture, it can take abuse without the appearance of having done so.

Due in part to its durability, I plan to furnish at least the recreation room in my retirement log cabin with log furniture. The grandchildren can have their way with it. The second possibility would be one or more of the bedrooms. For example, I recently saw a log bed plan (finished bed shown below) with the foot board configured as the back of a bench seat. I was intrigued to say the least.

The cost of log furniture varies with the level of handcrafting and type of wood. You can find some great buys on the internet. If you’ve got some woodworking experience, you can cut the price considerably by doing the construction yourself. You can buy plans online very cheaply. You’ll have to provide your own woodworking tools and wood. Unfortunately for me, I missed the high honor roll one semester in middle school thanks to my miserable woodworking performance in shop.

Despite my I would seriously consider buying a kit. I can follow good instructions with no problem. As another example, I’ve seen a red cedar queen size bed kit available on sale for under $400 with free shipping. They provide you with wood, instructions, screws, etc. All you add is some less than skilled labor.

You will find a wide variety of styles and looks.  Just like choosing your log cabin plan, I would recommend taking the time to shop around for ideas before buying.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Log Cabin Landscaping - The Cabin Perimeter

When deciding what to plant around the perimeter of your log cabin, first determine the size of the landscaping you want to plant. Second, similar to trees and groundcover, research which plants will grow well in your property’s habitat and fit your desired size. Besides online and nursery research, you can also walk around your local area and locate plants that are appealing to you. Take pictures and find out their names.

There are two reasons for not planting large plants and bushes around the immediate perimeter of a log cabin. The number one reason is to ensure that your logs have room to breath and access to airflow, thus deterring lengthy exposure to damaging moisture and the advent of mold and mildew. There should be a three to five foot distance between the plants and the log wall. You will need to allow for growth when determining the proper planting distance. You will need lots of room

The second reason is my own personal preference. I love the natural look of the logs. That’s why I’ll be building a log cabin. I don’t want to block the visual beauty of the logs, especially on the front. I once bought a house that had an attractive stone covered front that was mostly blocked from view by the evergreen trees that had been allowed to grow unchecked. I eventually cut down the trees and replaced them with smaller plants in order to uncover and showcase the stone.

The only exception to this rule could be on the rear sides of my log cabin. Due to the property slope there will be considerable exposed cement basement wall. I do have the option of covering the wall with log or stone siding. If not, I can plant some evergreens that will eventually hide the cement.

So in the front, I will be planting some shrubs whose height can be controlled by annual trimming. I once planted a row of Korean boxwoods on the side of my house in Connecticut. They filled in nicely and ended up about three feet high. I have determined that these plants will do well in the mountains of Georgia. I will also plant some perennial and/or annual flowering plants in front of the boxwoods for some color contrast.  A boxwood hedge (that needs a trim) is shown above.

When deciding what to plant, keep in mind that plants are sun or shade loving and so place them accordingly. Also, you should slope the ground around the perimeter to ensure that water will drain away from the log cabin wall.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Log Cabin Landscaping - The Hardscape

Just like the softscape or live horticultural elements of landscaping, you also need to plan the hardscape aspects of your log cabin landscaping. Hardscape includes such structures as driveways, walkways, patios, retaining walls, fountains and stone walls.

In keeping with the natural motif of my rustic log cabin and the surrounding mountains, there will be no concrete or asphalt hardscape on my property. The driveway and parking area will be stone covered. The parking area will require a retaining wall since the property slopes downward. The wall will be made of pressure treated boards.

The walkway from the driveway to the front door will also be connected to another path that will circumvent the log cabin. The paths will be covered with mulch and bordered with a rather unusual edging. I worked one summer in high school at a private residence. The owner bought some wooden fencing and had me cut the fencing lengthwise in one foot increments and wire together the cut ends. I soaked both ends of the wood in preservative, dug a trench along the edge of the landscaping and ‘planted’ the edging. I have to admit that the result was quite natural looking and attractive.

I will also need to cover the ground area where the log cabin’s rear basement doors will be situated underneath the back deck. I have previously constructed a patio from brick pavers which are available in a variety of shapes and colors. I would be inclined to do the same with the back patio. The pavers are installed on a sand base and bordered with edging material. Due to the slope of the land, I will need another retaining wall for this patio. My hot tub will probably be situated on this patio on top of a wood base.

I have another hardscape project for my log cabin property as well. The slope of the land increases for the lower two thirds. I will probably build a walkway to the bottom. What more appropriate step material than split logs? The logs should be dried and treated with a clear acrylic sealant to protect them from the elements and insects. Starting at the bottom of the hill, a two to three foot wide step area is cleared. Sand is poured on the base and the logs are tamped onto the step.

The number of hardscape projects you can come up with is almost limitless. I’m sure I’ll think of more after I’ve finished the ones above. I will guided by my desire to enhance the natural log cabin look of my property.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Log Cabin Landscaping - The Groundcover

Since my log cabin property is on a ridge slope in the mountains of north Georgia, I will not be considering grass as a groundcover. However, I will want to beautify part of my land surface, especially in front of the cabin, with green plants. Just like trees, I will be selecting plants that are native to the area. I have discovered through research that there are two ground cover plants that I am familiar with from my days in Connecticut, that also do well in north Georgia.

The first is pachysandra which is pictured above. I had a small back yard at my property in Connecticut that was shaded most of the day. The grass didn’t fare well. I covered the grass with topsoil and planted a bunch of pachysandra a foot apart. The pachysandra thrived in the shade and eventually the roots spread and filled in the entire area with the 6 inch tall green leafed plants as shown above. Our log cabin’s front lawn will be pachysandra.

I wish I could say that pachysandra is maintenance free. You don’t have to mow but you do have to remove the fall leaves. A rake is not very practical. A leaf blower is the common solution. I used a leaf vacuum/chopper that cut the leaves into small pieces. The chopped up leaves can be turned relatively quickly into compost for garden fertilizer.

The second plant type I have used is juniper pictured above. Juniper is an evergreen cover that spreads itself along the ground as it grows. The juniper is more of a sun loving plant.

In addition to my two favorites, there are a number of alternatives. These include non living covers or hardscape such as mulch, gravel and stone. There is also an assortment of flowering deciduous plants. Showy evening primrose and creeping verbena are two examples pictured below. Low growing shrubs and ornamental grasses can be used as well.

In conclusion, there are lots of ground cover options to choose from. Find out which ones thrive in your locale. Plant them and they will complement and beautify your log cabin property.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Log Cabin Landscaping - The Trees

Our log cabin property is on the end of a Blue Ridge Mountain ridge in Georgia. It overlooks another ridge nearby as well as more mountains in the distance. The property is sloped and runs to the bottom of the ridge. It’s currently wooded with a combination of evergreens and deciduous trees. A few of these are dead standing while others are fallen. The still standing will be cut down and all of them will be cut up. A number of the remaining live trees will also need to be cut down and roots removed to accommodate the log cabin. We will strike a balance between creating views of our beautiful mountain surroundings and preserving the natural beauty of the existing environment.  In any case, there will be plenty of firewood for the log cabin fireplace.

Once the log cabin has been built, it will be time to do some landscaping and rejuvenate the tree population. The first step is to do some research and develop a list of trees that are already on the property and others that are native to the area as well. Choosing native plants will maximize the likelihood of their ongoing growth and long term survival. I’m sure that one or more local nurseries is a good place to start the research.

Average winter temperatures, moisture, level of sunlight, soil pH are all considerations to your tree selection. Using temperature as an example, Georgia includess 5 different plant hardiness zones as illustrated by the following map.

Each zone varies in average annual low temperature by five degrees. The USDA website provides a list of the coldest recommended zone for a multitude of plants and trees.

Although I love the colorful fall foliage produced by deciduous trees, I will focus on planting evergreens. They will require a number of years to reach a decent height but that’s OK. I once planted six inch blue spruce seedlings on my property in Connecticut and when I last saw them after a five year absence, they were about five feet tall. I will keep the new trees spread out around 10 feet apart. There is nothing worse to me than the tall evergreens now on my log cabin property that have no pine needles below the very top due to lack of sunlight caused by the density of the trees.

My objective will be to ultimately enhance the natural beauty of my mountain property. Besides the rustic look of my log cabin, trees will help provide that enhancement.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Artificial Stone for your Log Cabin Fireplace

Like most log cabin owners, I will be installing a fireplace in my cabin. Although the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains have winters much milder than what we experienced when we lived in New England, I am looking forward to firing up those wood logs on a snowy day. We currently have a natural gas fireplace in our townhouse near Atlanta. We use it occasionally but miss the wood smell and natural flames of a wood fireplace.

After some research, we have decided to install a stone fireplace. We feel that the stone will stand out and provide an attractive contrast in our log cabin great room. There are a number of stone choices available. Natural stone is available in a full veneer which is three to five inches thick and a thin veneer which is a lighter weight version and about an inch thick.

Besides real stone, you also have the artificial or manufactured stone option. Artificial stone is made from concrete or cement and aggregates that are poured into special detailed molds. Special pigments are added to produce long lasting colors. Surface coloration is achieved by applying pigments to the surface of the mold. There are different styles available that mimic a variety of natural rocks. They look like the real thing.

A major advantage of the artificial stone is weight and the resulting easier installation. Artificial stone can be one third to one sixth of the weight of real stone. Artificial stone faced fireplaces do not require full masonry foundations to support them in you log cabin. Installing the lighter ‘stones’ saves time and cost. They can be installed by the weekend handyman following simple instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Manufacturers will provide warranties up to 50 years on their manufactured stones. They are non combustible. They are typically cheaper than real stone. Given the real look and other advantages, I will be using artificial stone for my log cabin fireplace.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hiring an Architect for your Log Cabin Design

Log cabin manufacturers will provide you with a number of standard designs in different sizes and styles. If you like a general design but want to make some changes, the manufacturer typically has a designer or design staff that can make modify one of their plans to accommodate you. Or, if you want a custom designed log cabin, then you will probably consider hiring an architect.

An architect provides several advantages over a manufacturer designer. You will normally be able to meet with the architect and express your ideas face to face and be more assured he understands what you want. He will be able to show you various options for your consideration. You are also likely to get more attention. Talking to a designer over the phone is just not as conducive to ending up with exactly what you want.

If you decide to go the architect route, make sure you find one with log cabin experience. Log cabins are different. They have a much greater variety of design options such as stairs, railings, log intersections, great rooms, etc. Also, be sure you are prepared to lay out your new home goals. The architect will help you convert those goals onto a blueprint.

Meet with several architects and determine if you have a good chemistry. Keep in mind that you will work closely with the architect throughout your cabin building process. Get references and talk to his log cabin design customers. You can also ask for his contractor recommendations. Get estimates. The estimate should include the design, guiding the project through the approval process and making sure that the construction follows the plans.

What do architects charge? Just like your log cabin design, there are options. Hourly rates will vary from $50 to $150. The hourly rate may vary based on the type of work. Their fee can be a percentage of the construction cost generally ranging from 5 to 15 percent. The fee may be based on the square footage of the log home. Out of pocket expenses may also be charged on top of the fee.

Upon selecting an architect, you will need a written contract that specifies the fee, a payment schedule for the fee, what work is to be done, the work schedule and a construction budget.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Log Cabin Interior Walls

The outside of a log cabin should maximize the rustic beauty of logs as much as possible. While you can use log siding to simulate the appearance of full logs and save money, I will be constructing my cabin with full logs. Having chosen full log construction, I will have by default, interior log walls as well. I will use “D” logs which will have a rounded outside surface while the interior surface will be flat.

My log cabin will be designed to maximize the visibility of these full logs on the inside. That means I don’t want them hidden in infrequently used rooms such as enclosed closets that can be moved to the interior.

I have seen a number of pictures of log cabin interiors that are all wood. That means wood floors, wood walls and wood ceilings. I read one article that stated ‘wood paneling is perfect for log cabin interiors because it is ‘over the top’.’ If you like ‘over the top’, then maximizing wood is quite doable.

There are several options for wood interior walls. You can go so far as building a ‘stacked’ log cabin in which all first floor walls, including inside, are constructed with full logs. More commonly, interior walls will be built with traditional wood studs but the outer wall is covered by log siding or wood paneling. Log siding will be rounded and provide a more rustic look while paneling will be flat.

I definitely do not have an ‘over the top’ inclination. I don't like the all wood look and prefer the contrast of different surfaces. I expect that all my interior walls will be traditional wood framed with wallboard but each type of room will be covered with a different wall treatment. While I may choose wood paneling for a particular room, it’s only one option of many.

Interior walls can be built with wallboard that is painted or stuccoed. I’ve also seen a log cabin model with wallboard covered with what looked like a tan colored compound mixture. The wall surface looked textured and I found it quite attractive as well as unusual. You can also cover wallboard with stone or tile. There is also my least favorite covering, wallpaper.

You are not restricted to one type of wall covering in a particular room. I’ve seen a mix of wood paneling, tile on the lower portion of a wall and painted wallboard in the same room that was unique. The point is that there’s more than just wood to a log cabin. Consider the alternatives

Monday, July 19, 2010

Your Log Cabin Budget

What will your log cabin cost? That depends on a lot of things. You control most, if not all of the cost factors. The first step is to set a firm budget. Then, you probably need to make comprises as needed to stay within that budget.

I remember touring a log home that happened to be my preferred model, a three bedroom, two and a half bath with great room and a finished basement. The sales representative of the manufacturer, who was also a builder, eventually confided to me that a standard equipped home of that model would probably cost around $400,000. I believe that he was being entirely honest and I have also to confess that the number was a tad more than I expected.

He also stated that the particular house we were touring cost around $500,000 due to upgraded cabinets, countertops, fixtures, etc. That’s a 25% premium! Wow! (I don’t know about you but I’m not all that excited about fixtures.) Keep in mind that only about 20% of a log home cost comes from the logs.

Based on this experience and further research, I would recommend the following log home cost management approaches.

Determine your base log cabin design. As the result of reviewing many plans and visiting a number of log cabin models, I have a pretty good idea of what I would like. I’m not sure that I will be able to afford it but that’s OK. I’m going to have two to three log cabin manufacturers provide me plans (based on my input) and an estimated cost. I will also get quotes from at least three builders with log cabin experience (after reference research) to complete the construction.

If the numbers add up too high, I will start cutting back on features that I would like but don’t need. There are add-ons that I’ve seen on a model that I could live without. Maybe that roof won’t cover the porch. Maybe the roof won’t extend over the great room windows. Maybe I won’t be using Brazilian hard wood for my porches. If necessary, the basement won’t be finished. I will also expect the vendors to tighten their belts as well.

As a guide, I have seen a turnkey cost projection of $140-150 per square foot which excludes a driveway, septic and well. A minimum budget should not dip below $130.

Log Cabin Siding

I struggled a bit before choosing the title for this article. A log cabin is made from logs. What does siding have to do with a log cabin? Well, having bought land on a mountain ridge, I knew that a basement would be needed to accommodate the land slope. The back end of the log cabin basement would have a pair of sliding glass doors but still lots of exposed concrete. The log cabin pictured above provides an approximation of what the rear of my cabin will look like. The outer basement walls in the picture are covered with stone which is certainly one option. I, however, would prefer the consistency of wood. I will use log siding.

I’ve also discovered another application that I intend to pursue. Like the pictured cabin, mine will have two dormered windows in back but also two more in front. I see no need to construct those dormers with full logs. They will be wood framed and log sided.

I uncovered a number of options while researching siding for my log cabin. Although I’m interested only in real wood, I mention these other options for informational purposes and possible further research. The first three are vinyl, metal and concrete. I have only seen pictures of them but they are supposed to resemble real logs. Ease of maintenance and durability are their primary benefit.

I’ve also discovered what is called e-log siding. These ‘logs’ are composed of expanded polystyrene with a base of oriented strand board and an outside surface of laminated fiberboard and a thick wood veneer. The e-logs come in 8 foot lengths and diameters of 12, 14 or 16 inches. The e-log does require ongoing cleaning and restaining.

Real wood log siding is made pretty much the same as the full logs. The options are hand crafted or milled. After being trimmed, the log is cut lengthwise to 1 ½” thickness for quarter log and 2 ½” half log sizes. The half log has a more rounded and full log appearance. A tongue and groove end match design makes for a relatively easy installation. You can also buy ‘false corners’ such as but and pass to match the full log corners of your log cabin. Real wood siding does require maintenance similar to a full log.

Both the real log and e-log siding can be installed on interior walls as well. Siding is definitely cheaper and easier to install than full logs. It’s your log cabin. The choice is yours.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Log Cabin Lighting

Designing a lighting strategy for a log cabin is different than for a traditional house. I’m not referring to developing an even more rustic look with the use of fixtures featuring antlers and images of deer and moose. I’m focusing on the special lighting characteristics of a wood interior. The exposed log walls and wood paneled walls and ceilings of log cabins tend to absorb light rather than reflect it. Cabins with open great rooms require more auxiliary lighting for proper illumination. Using the right kind of lighting enhances the beauty and warmth of the wood interior.

There are several types of lighting to consider including:

Natural – You manage daylight through optimized placement and size of windows and skylights. In warm climates, sunlight can overheat a log cabin through windows on the south and west facing sides. Roof overhangs can provide shade as well as protect the wood. Of course, the amount of heat and daylight can also be reduced with curtains or blinds. I plan to maximize the views and natural light of the great room in my log cabin through large picture windows. I haven’t decided yet whether to extend the roof over these windows. Tubular skylights also spreads natural light while minimizing the extent of roof penetration.

Ambient - Ambient lighting provides the general diffused illumination that lights a house. It sets the overall tone and mood of a room. Ambient light sources include chandeliers, flush recessed lights and ceiling mounted pendant lamps. Recessed lighting provides a high level of light without unsightly fixtures. Our kitchen has a series of recessed ceiling lights that are virtually out of sight yet totally illuminate the room.

Accent - Accent lights are directional, they provide contrast and illuminate special features in a room such as artwork and special log cabin architectural features. Uplights, which as the name suggests direct their light upward, can highlight, for example, wooden trusses. We have a light inside a glass and mirrored dining room cabinet that directs attention to our beautiful china and glassware.

Task – Task lighting is especially important in a log cabin. Rather than providing a focus on objects, task lighting sheds light on a specific area to assist the completion of visual tasks. Under cabinet lights can be out of sight but provide extra light on a countertop or work station. A table or standing lamp can be used to provide reading light

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Handcrafted Log Homes

You have two choices when deciding on the type of log cabin you build. If you are a purist or just love a totally rustic log cabin appearance, then using handcrafted logs is the way to go. However, appreciate that due to the manual labor involved, the handcrafted method comes at a higher cost than milling. I have decided to use milled logs for my cabin, preferring their uniform look and tight fit. I made my decision after studying all log cabin options.

As the name suggests, handcrafted logs are hewn or peeled by hand. Milled logs are both shaped and connections produced by machine. The most common handcrafted wood types are Douglas Fir, Pine or Spruce. Typically, the logs are larger than ones used in the milling process. Milled logs are usually cut to between six and eight inches in diameter while handcrafted will range between twelve to twenty inches and average around fifteen. The handcrafted logs will have different diameters while milled logs will be uniform.

                                                                   Handcrafted Logs

How are handcrafted logs fit together? Some log cabins are built purposely with space between the logs. The space is filled with chinking, a mortal like substance. A second option is to make a simple straight cut across the top and bottom of each log. When stacked, they will still leave gaps. The gaps must be caulked or chinked. A third method is to scribe each log to fit the top surface of the log beneath, making the log connections more weather tight. A high degree of craftsmanship is required to accomplish this.

A timber roof system can also be made from hand peeled logs. The logs are scribed, fitted and cut to match the desired roof pitch. The roof can be structured with scissor trusses, ridge beam and purloins or log truss with rafters.
                                                                    Log Trusses

Maintenance of handcrafted logs is the same as the milled logs. The wood needs to be sealed on an ongoing basis.

Settling is always a concern with log cabins. Know how your handcrafter compensates for it. As I have emphasized before, research is key to achieving your dream home. If you can, find several handcrafters that have log cabins in your area and analyze their results. Find out what other local customers have experienced in terms of settling, drafts and leaks. There is no substitute for experience. I wouldn’t dare select someone until I had seen his work. Take advantage of those who have gone before you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Log Cabin Railing Maintenance

You’ve decided to build that log cabin home. You’ve decided that decks are a necessity. Furthermore, you’ve wisely concluded that log railings are the only way to maintain an authentic log cabin look. Having chosen log railings, you will have to address the maintenance issue. Like the rest of your log cabin, you have made an investment in wood. Left to its own natural course and without intervention, it will deteriorate and need to be replaced. Don’t let that happen.

Moisture is the number one enemy of wood. Railings, being on the outer extremity of a log cabin will be subject to a lot of moisture exposure. There are two major points of exposure, the top of posts and the top edge of the bottom rail where the railing spindles enter the rail. The posts are vulnerable since the wood post grain runs from top to bottom and allows the water to access the entire post through capillaries. Secondly, water will run down the spindles and collect in the spindle holes of the bottom rail.

How do you protect your railing against this potential water damage? Clearly, with all external wood surfaces, you need to apply an ongoing finish. This is not an easy task as railings have a multitude of surfaces. Nonetheless, you have wood to protect and protect it you must. You will need to maintain a quality stain/preserver coating. Do not ignore this requirement unless you expect to replace the railings.

There are additional preventative actions that can be taken to address the specific water problems mentioned above. The top of each post can be covered with a cap, copper being an excellent choice. Glue these caps to the post rather than use screws. Another protective measure is to use stand off post bases for attaching the bottom of the posts. The bases provide a space that allows air to dry out the post.

You can also drill ¼ inch holes on the bottom of each spindle hole on the bottom rail. The holes will allow the water to drain from the rail.

You’ve decided to build yourself (and others) a great log cabin. Don’t scrimp on the railings or the necessary maintenance. You will profit from both.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Log Cabin Property Available for Sale

I was recently visiting my Georgia Blue Ridge Mountain log cabin property. Since I was in the neighborhood, I stopped by the developer’s sales office to say hello. My sales rep was there and we started discussing the current state of the market. He mentioned two properties for sale that were special bargains. He offered to show them to me and always being curious, I agreed.

The first property was over an acre with a four bedroom house. Fortunately, there was a couple looking at the house when we arrived and the house was open. Although it wasn’t a log cabin, I still found it to be of interest. It had three floors and two of them opened to large decks off the back. The view was nothing like my property provided, but the bottom line was the asking price, $150,000. The owner was apparently anxious to unload it.

My first thought was to buy it primarily as an investment, live there for a few years and then sell. The gain would be applied to building my log cabin. There was only one problem. I already had a home that was under water and I needed to hold onto it until its resale value re-surfaced.

The second property was undeveloped land. However, it was special. Next door is a private waterfront trout lodge. It borders on Talking Rock Creek with almost 250 feet of creek footage. The property is pie shaped and covers 1.32 acres. The land across the river rises straight up. Part of the opposite cliff is pure rock while the rest is tree covered. It is a rather impressive view. Even more impressive is the asking price, $125,000. Check out two scenes of the river from this property.

                                                  The view up river from the property

                                                                     Just next door.

If you have any interest in property, send me your contact info. I will get you set up with the right person. Contact me, Bob Saunders, at

Friday, July 2, 2010

Log Cabin Hot Tubs

Hot tubs are a very popular amenity added to log cabins. I am a hot tub fan as I used to own one when I lived in Connecticut. I was replacing my back deck and decided that it was time to add a hot tub platform alongside the new deck. I purchased a ‘Jacuzzi’ model and had the end of the deck built to provide easy access to the hot tub. I wired and installed speakers from my stereo system. The final result was incredible. Our property bordered a river and I immensely enjoyed the scenery and the soothing surge of the hot water complemented by some smooth jazz.

The hot tub was used all year round. I can remember being in the tub in the winter one night. The steam from the tub rose into the air and froze, returning to the tub in the form of snow. It was amazing. On the other hand, make sure you have a warm terry cloth bathrobe ready for your exit from the tub.

Since then, we moved to Georgia and bought property on a ridge in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. Although my Connecticut Poquonock River location was quite beautiful, I find the mountains to be even more attractive. I will be building a log cabin and a hot tub will definitely be included. Since my property is on the side of the mountain ridge and my main floor cabin back deck (with the best mountain view) will be well above the ground level, it is unfortunately impractical to install it there. With occupants, a hot can weigh over 5,000 lbs.

The tub will have to be installed at ground level. I will not build another entire deck but rather just another platform with a small adjoining deck on the upper log cabin side of the tub for access. The tub platform will need at least six footing posts. If you are wise, you will err on the side of caution and install more than the minimum. Make sure all the footings are level.

The Jacuzzi hot tub I bought was a premium model that came with a lifetime warranty. I discovered the benefit of the warranty after the first year. The hot tub developed a leak and wouldn’t hold water. However, since it was in the winter, the service outfit couldn’t repair it until the following Spring. It was a log and cold winter.

You also want to be aware of the maintenance requirements. The water needs to be tested and chemicals need to be applied. The water must be sanitized with bromine or chloride. The proper pH level and alkalinity must be also maintained. We also used a defoamer on occasion. The water needs to be drained and replaced every 2-3 months. Based on our experience, if you have children, more frequent maintenance is required.

If you’re building a log cabin, I highly recommend adding a hot tub.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Log Cabin Logs - Shapes, Connections and Corners

Logs for a log cabin can be milled or handcrafted. Hand crafted logs are unique and vary in size. Due to their hand crafting, they are more expensive but produce a more natural look. There are also half logs which are used to surface a conventional structure but still yield a log cabin look. This article will address the milled full log option. The wood is machined to a uniform size and shape. There are several log profiles available including:

Square/Rectangular The wood is milled with 4 straight edges. One edge may be beveled.

Round The wood is milled round. Round logs may be coped (Swedish cope), i. e., a half moon groove is cut on the bottom to allow them to fit one on top of another.

D shaped The log is milled with flat top and bottom and with at least one round side. The second side may either be round or flat. My preference is the flat and round D shaped log: round on the outside and flat on the inside.

Log Interface

How are logs fitted together to construct the log cabin? Milled flat surfaces fit on top of each other but how is the connection kept solid and air tight? A common connection is the tongue and groove. These can be single or multiple. Tongues are milled on the top of the log and the interlocking groves are on the bottom.

A sealer will be applied to the tongue and groove joints. Another method is to mill a groove on both sides of the log and connect the logs with a wood spline fitting into the grooves. Lag bolts may also be used to secure the logs together.

There are also a number of different corner connection options for a log cabin.

Dovetail Used with square/rectangular logs, the corner is cut in a fan shaped wedge that interlocks with the perpendicular connecting logs.

Butt One log fits into a cutout of the connecting log

Butt and Pass One log is cutout to snugly fit the outside of the intersecting log.

Saddlenotch Notches in the shape of a saddle are cut on top and bottom of logs. These notches intersect and logs overlap the connecting logs

Corner Post The wall logs are toe-nailed onto a vertical corner post which is commonly bigger than the wall logs. There are no extended log ends.

If there are extended log ends, they can be straight, staggered or curved

Cabin Rentals on the Blue Ridge Parkway

My log cabin property is located in the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains in north Georgia. The range includes the highest elevations in eastern North America. The maximum peak is 6,684 feet at Mt Mitchell in North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Mountains name results from the isoprene released from the mountain trees which scatters light and makes it look blue. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile highway that runs through the range northeast from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive in Virginia.

Where can you vacation in a log cabin in the mountains nearby the Blue Ridge Parkway? I have discovered a plethora of cabins for rent. The cabins ranged from one bedroom and one bath efficiencies all the way up to million dollar 10 bedroom layouts. The advertisers ranged from the owner of 3 cabins to rental companies that managed more than 100 properties. Minimum stays can be daily, weekly or monthly but daily rates are typically available. Daily rates range between $75 and $750 with discounts for weekly stays. Included with many of the cabin rentals are popular amenities such as hot tubs, fireplaces, gas grills and game rooms.

Why would you rent a cabin off the Blue Ridge Parkway? For the same reason I bought land in the mountains. Just enjoying the breathtaking views of the mountains is enough justification for me. The natural beauty along the entire parkway is incredible. But there is so much more. There are numerous state parks and scenic falls just off the highway. With the mountains come trails for hiking, jogging and biking. For the less energetic, you can go horse back riding. There are also golf courses for the linksters. Let’s not forget the water. There are plenty of lakes and rivers for boating, tubing and whitewater rafting. There’s also an abundance of fish to be caught as well.

Winter does come south. There are mountains and so there are slopes for skiing, tubing and snowboarding and rinks for skating. One ski mountain advertises a season from mid November to April. I have to say that I’m looking forward to my first snowfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ll be sitting in front of a roaring fire in my log cabin and looking out my great room windows at a winter wonderland.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wood Gutters for Your Log Cabin

Generally, wood gutters are used to replace old gutters when restoring older homes or in custom building. I consider my log cabin to be a custom home and will consider the installation of wood gutters.

Wood gutters are the most costly option and are made from three types of wood: redwood, cedar and fir. With proper maintenance, redwood gutters can last up to 100 years. Wood gutters are usually 4 x 6 inches in width and height and are sold in 10 and 20 foot lengths. Redwood gutters cost between $16 and $18 per linear foot while fir, the cheapest, will be around $10. Copper, black iron or PVC are commonly used as material for leaders. If desired, the leaders can be boxed in with wood. I have also seen an article espousing rain chains which originated in Japan and are essentially a series of funnels directing the water downward.

Wood gutters are connected by way of a scarfed joint. The ends of the two pieces are cut at the same angle which maximizes the area of connection. The inside ends of the connecting lengths are beveled and the joint is filled with a high quality sealant. The gutters are simply nailed to the facia with galvanized-headed nails through pre-drilled holes. The recommended pitch is ½ inch for every 20 feet.

Downspouts are installed by drilling holes in the gutter that are 1/16 inch smaller than the downspout nipple. The nipple, 3 inches long by 1 3/8 inches in diameter is screwed into the gutter. The nipple will fit into a 1 ½ inch downspout.

Maintenance of wood gutters includes ongoing cleaning and applications of wood protection treatments. Cleaning should be done at least once a year. A spring and fall regimen is recommended. One key to preventing wood rot is to keep the wood dry.
Remove all debris that will retain moisture, e.g., leaves and the pebbles from composition shingles.

The outside of the gutter will be treated just like any other of your log cabin decorative trim using, for example, a stain/sealant. The inside of the gutter should be treated with a non drying oil such as shingle oil. Don’t use a material that will seal moisture in the gutter. If any wood has rotted, remove only the portion that has rotted using a hand planer or rasper.

Despite the higher cost of wood gutters, they are compatible with my vision of a custom built log cabin. The additional maintenance will be a pleasure.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Projecting Your Log Cabin Cost

How much will it cost to build your log cabin? The first step is to come up your cabin design and manufacturer. Take your time with the design and get it right up front. Changes down the road can become expensive.

The easiest way is to project the cost it to pick a log cabin company that will give you a price for a turnkey finished home. They will include wiring, plumbing, fixtures,appliances etc. They provide you with one stop shopping. It greatly simplifies the process but will it get you a fair price? You don't know unless you do your comparison shopping.

There are shortcut ways to estimate the cost. The first is apply an average cost per square foot for custom built houses in the area to the square footage of the cabin. The second is to gross up the cost of the kit price provided by the log home manufacturer by a factor of say three. Without going into further detail, I personally find neither of these methods to be sufficiently precise.

Therefore, you have to build up the cost from scratch. You start with the log cabin companies kit price and a list of the kit's contents that includes, at a minimum, your home plans and all the precut logs and log connecting hardware that you'll need. You'll need to hire a general contractor/builder to determine and acquire the remaining materials and perform and/or subcontract the construction. Get a bid from the contractor for the labor and materials. I would definitely hire a contractor with prior log cabin experience and check out some references.

There are always contingencies. For example, I will need excavation for a basement on my property. Only God knows what's ten feet under the surface. In any case I would factor in at least ten percent for unexpected costs.

Make sure you've included everything included in the turnkey price; floor coverings, painting, staining, etc. Add everything up and you've got a decent handle on your final tab. Compare it to the turnkey price as a guide. If it's substantially different, figure out why.

Touring a log cabin model

Last week, I headed up to aptly named Blue Ridge, Georgia for my first visit to this scenic town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along the way,I noticed a bilboard for a log cabin company that had a model home just off the highway. I stopped at the model on the way back home. I'm very glad that I did and I highly recommend visiting a model cabin for design ideas.

The model turned out to be a larger version of the type of log cabin layout that I was interested in building. In fact, except for the rear of the cabin, it was near perfect. There were features that I hadn't seen before that I found very attractive.

The log cabin had three finished floors (including the basement) with a great room overlooking the rear of the property. The two features that I found particularly attractive were:

1. The outside featured a wraparound porch that was covered by the roof. The roof coverage helps to protect the exterior wood from the elements as well as provides shade.

2. The second floor had a loft that was converted into an office and also led to an optional gabled porch on the front of the cabin. Besides providing more space and another second floor view, it made the front of the cabin look much more attractive.

The rear roof featured another gable that extended well beyond the outside of the wall. There was also a fireplace in the middle of the rear great room wall. Since my property has such a great view of the mountains from the back, I would rather eliminate the fireplace and maximize the window views. The extended gable would also be shortened coniderably. When it's between protecting the logs and an uncumbered view, I'll deal with the more frequent maintenance.

The point of this article is that the design of your dream log cabin won't be found in a brochure. I especially recommend the visual approach. Go look at a number of cabins before deciding on your final layout.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Log Cabin Land in North Georgia

Since moving to Georgia, my wife and I bought some Blue Ridge Mountain land on which to build our log cabin retirement home. We had taken a few day trips to northern Georgia and were very impressed with the scenery and recreational alternatives. One day, I received a sales call from a company that was selling properties in one of its resort developments in the mountains. I accepted a free Saturday night stay in Ellijay in return for looking at a couple of their available properties.

The salesperson first drove us to Carter Lake which was just north of the development. The lake was beautiful and designed for boating, swimming and fishing. Then he drove us the long way through the development to our first destination. The mountain scenery was spectacular. We finally reached what I assume was their best remaining unsold property. The property was at the end of a cul-de-sac that ran along the top of one of the mountain ridges. The ridge was surrounded by several other ridges as well as some long distance mountain views. We looked at a couple other pieces of land but we were already sold on the first one. We negotiated and signed the purchase contract within a week.

Despite our abbreviated research, I have no regrets having made the decision to purchase. The property’s mountain views are awesome and it was the ideal location for a log cabin. Nonetheless, if you plan on buying land for a mountain cabin, I would recommend checking out your alternatives more thoroughly than we did. Since we bought the land, we have done some more sightseeing in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One time, we headed east from our property on Route 136. We missed our turn to get onto Route 511 south and continued east. Our missed turn proved to be good fortune. Route 136 ran through more mountains and some pull over areas with rather spectacular views. Eventually, we hit Route 400 and were able to head back south.

More recently, I visited the town of Blue Ridge, northeast of my property. I asked for the best way back to Route 411 which runs north/south nearby my property. I was given directions and found myself on Route 52 west. It proved to be an impressive drive. The road ran up and down the mountain, again with spectacular views. I was finally compelled to pull over and take some pictures. I noticed a number of log cabins situated alongside the road.

So, once again, I recommend checking out your alternatives. There’s a lot of undeveloped land in the northern Georgia mountains upon which to build your log cabin home. Given our current economy, now is definitely the time to check it out.

Blue Ridge Georgia Cabin Rentals

I recently read a newspaper article about a couple that bought a log cabin in scenic (and I believe historic) Blue Ridge, Georgia. They had sold two investment properties and their original intention was to reinvest in another rental house. However, they fell in love with the house and property and used it as their weekend and vacation retreat. I thought to myself, this must be an incredible place. I did some internet research and discovered that Blue Ridge is indeed a cabin rental paradise. There are numerous cabins available for rent through a number of different intermediaries.

The article finally motivated me to drive to Blue Ridge this week for the first time. Although I had travelled numerous times to my mountain property in Ranger, Georgia, only another half hour southwest of Blue Ridge, I had never added it to my itinerary. In any case, the drive north was pleasant and smooth. I headed up Route 75 to Route 575 which eventually turns into 511 which has been named the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway. The traffic going south toward Atlanta on 75 was quite a bit more congested. Just a bit of advice - you definitely want to be heading north from Atlanta in the morning and south for the afternoon rush.

So I made it up to Blue Ridge without any delays and found the downtown just off the highway. It was quarter of ten in the morning and both the vehicle and pedestrian traffic were quite subdued. I found a free parking space (parking everywhere seemed to be free) near the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway station. There was a train standing there which had both enclosed and open (no windows) cars. I strongly suspect that I will return for the train ride in the future. I love looking at the mountains and being just a spectator sure beats being behind the wheel of a car.

Walking back to the street from the tracks, I discovered two primary types of businesses, country retail stores and real estate offices. Based on the number of cabin rental offices I saw, I concluded there must have been a lot of rentals in the area. I subsequently confirmed the plethora of cabin rentals by finding numerous related web sites on line. I looked up one site and found, among others that were similar, a 3 bedroom, 3 bath cabin with a mountain view and a $725 weekly rental. It had triple decker porches on the back of the house. I was impressed.

So, I would heartily recommend that if you’re interested in enjoying the mountain beauty of Georgia, you definitely want to check out Blue Ridge.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gatlinburg cabin rentals

My wife and I moved down to Georgia five years ago. I love the mountains and someone recommended Gatlinburg, Tennessee as a good place to vacation. On a trip back to Georgia from the northeast, we routed ourselves through Tennessee and Gatlinburg. We got a flavor of the Great Smoky Mountains as we travelled south. We drove right through the center of Gatlinburg on the main road. Traffic was heavy and slow and it was clear that it was a very popular location.

The following year, we decided to rent a log cabin in the area. I typed in Gatlinburg cabin rentals in Google and was rewarded with an abundance of alternatives. I preferred to be outside the town and there were plenty of secluded cabin options. The rental cost was even cheaper than a hotel room for a one bedroom cabin. That Fall, we arrived for our week vacation. Although we were very short drive from down town, we were in the woods and a short walk from mountain trails.

My wife and I came to a compromise concerning our activities. I enjoy the outside and hiking while she’s more into shopping and being entertained. Gatlinburg satisfied both our preferences. I tolerated several days of down town including a couple of lunches and one dinner out. The dinner was at the Dolly Parton Stampede Show down the road apiece from Gatlinburg in Pigeon Forge. If we had children with us, I’m sure I would have been more attuned to the entertainment side of the area. There were certainly plenty of activities for kids.

On my days, we drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stopping occasionally for hikes of varying lengths. The foliage was incredible. We also saw some still standing log cabins built many years ago. You’d be amazed how our ancestors survived in the woods. In summary, the park and mountains were beautiful.

Getting back to our log cabin, it was rustic but had all the amenities we needed. We cooked most of our dinners there. We packed a lunch for our mountain excursions. The cabin had a porch in front with a great view. I spent numerous early morning hours sitting on the porch, sipping on my coffee and gazing at the gorgeous panorama.

My conclusion was we had made the right decision on renting a cabin in Gatlinburg. I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in vacationing in the Smoky Mountain area. It has something for everyone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Buying Your Log Cabin Land through an IRA

I discovered a while back, that I could make real estate investments through my IRA where all of my investment money was situated. The real estate market was (and still is) ripe for a killing if you have the money available. I ended up buying a repossessed four bedroom, two bath house from a bank for $36,000. I paid for it as well as the rehab costs from my IRA. It’s now generating $900 a month rent (less property tax, insurance and maintenance) that goes back into the IRA tax deferred. I’ll probably sell the house when the market comes back. The gain will go back to the IRA still tax deferred.

Around the same time, I began to look at retirement properties in the southern Appalachian mountains. I found an awesome two acre property on a ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Georgia. This was the ideal location for my log cabin. Because it was still a buyers market, it was also the ideal time to buy it. Due to personal considerations, I needed to tap my IRA to make the purchase. I could have withdrawn money but because I was under 59 ½, it would have been subject to a 10% penalty as well as become currently taxable as income.

I called up my IRA company and was advised that I could buy land as an investment. Given the discounted price I was paying, it really could be considered an investment. I ended up purchasing the land through the IRA. Property taxes and any other ongoing expenses are also paid by the IRA as they come due. When it comes time to build my log cabin on the land, I can take total control of the land by distributing to myself.

To invest in real estate, you need to set up a self directed IRA. You can roll over funds from a regular IRA tax free. There are a number of companies that specialize in self directed IRAs and real estate investing including Guidant Financial and the Entrust Group. If the value of the real estate is expected to appreciate, you can also utilize a self directed Roth IRA and pay the taxes over the next four years. If the real estate is not distributed for five years, it will incur no tax when the deed is transferred to you personally. They do charge annual fees that are not nominal but they can provide invaluable advice.

Financing Your Log Cabin Land Purchase

You’ve decided to make that land purchase for your eventual log cabin retirement home site. Now is definitely the time to buy. The drawback is getting financing. If you haven’t already started your research, you’ll soon discover that undeveloped land is not exactly a lender’s favorite collateral. A lot of major banks aren’t interested in financing only land. First of all, you will want to focus on smaller local lenders that are at least familiar with the area of the property.

Why is undeveloped land so much more risky than developed? It’s primarily because unimproved land can’t be used to generate income. It’s also a lot easier for the borrower to stop making payments and walk away from land than a property with his home on it. If there’s no road and/or no utility access to the land which is not unusual for a log cabin site, lenders are even less interested. There’s a lot more downside risk than interest income for the lender.

Due to this collateral risk profile, lenders that do finance land, will have much more stringent conditions than a home mortgage. They want to be assured that you have the ability to make the payments. The more confident they are, the lower the down payment required. You can also provide other collateral besides the land. In any case, they don’t want your land. They want your monthly payments. They will typically require:

Higher credit standing
Higher interest rate
Shorter term – 10-15 years compared to 30 year mortgage
Higher down payment 25-30%

If you don’t have the full down payment or your credit doesn’t cut the mustard, what do you do? There’s always one possibility. Who is possibly even more motivated than you for you to be able to buy the land? The seller may be willing to provide you with financing. The conditions such as financing term and rate will depend on your negotiating skills, how desperate the seller is and when the seller needs the money. He may be perfectly content to just get a payment every month for a long term. A seller will usually want at least 20% down but again, that is negotiable.

I bought my log cabin land from a developer. I ended up paying 100% cash from my IRA (see my related article “Using Your IRA to Buy Land for a Log Cabin.”) I did find out that the developer had occasionally lent short term money to buyers. The financing structure was a ‘land contract’, also known as a ‘contract for deed.’ The term is 12-18 months and a down payment is required. The monthly payments include some principal amortization. A large balloon payment (remaining principal) is payable at the end of term.

The developer still holds title and if the buyer does not refinance/pay off the balloon at the end of the term, the developer keeps all the payments as well the property. If you do refinance, you get the title. You had better be confident in your ability to refinance or this option is quite expensive.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Radiant Floor Heat for your Log Cabin

I will be building a basement as part of my log cabin construction. Since the basement will be finished at some point, I needed to decide on a heating system. One alternative that I researched was radiant floor heating. I learned that installation of radiant tubing within a concrete floor was the easiest, most cost effective and highest performance applications of radiant heat. Since the rest of the heating system can be installed at a later date, I concluded that it was the ideal choice for my situation.

What exactly is radiant heat? Why is it used? It is a very efficient heat distribution system that uses the entire floor to provide warmth to the room(s). It’s possible to set the room temperature several degrees lower than a forced air system and achieve the same comfort level. The most popular and less expensive residential system is hydronics, i.e., running hot water through flexible plastic tubing within the concrete floor. This system maintains a very comfortable warm feet and cool head environment. There are no vents as used in a less efficient forced air system.

The tubing is laid down in a serpentine fashion on top of the concrete wire mesh and insulation. The concrete is poured encapsulating the tubing. The two ends of the tubing stick out of the concrete (hot water in and cool water out.) The system is pressure tested before being connected to the water heating system. A floor sensor thermistor is used to monitor the temperature of the floor. A zoned system with multiple temperature monitors and tubing loops can be installed.

The cost of a hydronic system is approximately $4 - $6 per square foot. Installation does require an experienced specialist.

Almost any floor covering can be used over the concrete. The most common is ceramic tile. Vinyl and linoleum sheets, carpeting and wood can be applied. Laminated wood is better suited for radial heat than solid wood which is susceptible to shrinking and cracking. Of course, anything that insulates the floor will reduce the heat release and the efficiency of the system. A covered floor will require a higher temperature setting.

Although my plan is to install a radiant system in just the basement of my log cabin, it can also be installed upstairs with the tubing running between the joists and beneath the subfloor in what is called a dry installation. Wet or dry, it merits your consideration.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Maintaining Your Log Cabin Wood

The last house I bought was a traditional wood frame colonial that was about ten years old. We loved the house and location but over the first few years, the lack of proper maintenance by previous owners became expensively evident.

First, I re-stained the wood shingles that clearly hadn’t been re-done since original construction. The shingles on the southern exposure side were somewhat warped and eventually the stain began to peal. I’ve seen that happen with paint but not with stain. I concluded the shingles were shot. Rather than replace them, I installed vinyl siding to cover them up.

The original wood framed windows also started to malfunction and I replaced them with new vinyl energy efficient ones. I also discovered the hard way that the back deck had been built with non pressure treated wood. It began to disintegrate. The theme was clearly that not only do you need to install the right kind of wood, it requires ongoing maintenance as well.

A log cabin, as the ultimate ‘wood’ home, requires serious maintenance to protect its beauty and longevity. You might think that because I went ‘artificial’ with my previous home, that I would find vinyl windows and composite decking to be attractive low maintenance alternatives. No…I’ve chosen a log cabin and decided that ‘wood is good.’ Fortunately, this time, I will be starting from new. A log cabin is a rustic but gorgeous looking structure and I intend to keep mine that way.

With a new cabin, you should get a warranty that specifies log maintenance requirements. The logs must be treated with a preservative within a certain number of months of delivery and every few years on an ongoing basis for the warranty to remain valid. (Don’t forget to save your receipts to prove you completed the required applications.) To me, it makes sense to treat all the external wood including window frames, soffits, decks etc. on the same log maintenance schedule.

I will also be cleaning the wood before the stain/preservative retreatment. In fact, I intend to clean the wood on an annual basis. I would recommend using a brush and a regular hose rather than a power washer to clean the wood. There is no need to test the integrity of your seals with something other than what nature already provides.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Log Cabin Warrantees - Buyer Beware

Most log manufacturers provide a limited warranty with the sale of their log home packages. Having read a number of them, the value of their warranty is not entirely clear. ‘Limited’ seems to me that they not only do not cover all the costs related to their defects, their coverage is subject to interpretation. In other words, you need a lawyer to figure out what you’ve got.

The warranty typically states that the company will replace any logs that develop manufacturing related defects. There is, of course, no definition of what is considered a manufacturing defect. For example, insufficiently dried logs are naturally susceptible to shrinking, settling, checking, warping and twisting as they dry. Are these considered manufacturing defects? It’s not clear to me.

Honestly being unsure, I recently asked a log cabin manufacturing company representative, what constitutes a manufacturing defect? His response via e-mail was contradicted by his company’s written warranty. Even the company representative wasn’t clear on the warranty. The warranty specifically excluded checking, warping and twisting. He didn’t exclude those conditions. Shrinking and settling were not specifically excluded. So maybe they were covered. Maybe they weren’t. I, as the buyer, should know.

The warrantees also specifically exclude ‘labor, installation and shipping costs related to their manufacturing defect. Give me a break. I’ve got to pay anything because of your bad quality work? Fortunately, some states wisely have laws that will take precedence over the limitation or exclusion of consequential damages. Check your state law. If your state law doesn’t protect you in a situation like this when you’re not at fault, you have my sympathy.

One condition to these warrantees that I fully endorse is the proper maintenance of the logs by the owner. You are required to follow a recommended ongoing preservation treatment of the logs. If you don’t comply, the warranty is voided. Hey, if you don’t want to maintain it as required, you shouldn’t buy it.

Many log cabin warranteess are lifetime. Some are for limited terms. If the coverage is not clear, does the term really matter?

There are a lot of log home manufacturers out there. Apparently there are not quite enough. Warranty provisions seem to me to be less than customer friendly. Under these conditions, I would want to be satisfied that my log cabin manufacturer is providing quality logs. It’s all the more reason to verify claims with customers. You will once again hear my battle cry! Do your research!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The quality of your log cabin logs

There are a number of factors that determine the quality and strength of a log. The Log Home Council, an organization of log home manufacturers, developed a log grading system to determine the structural integrity of a log. The system addressed defects in logs that affect its strength. Those defects include, among other factors, the slope of the grain, the size and density of knots, holes, splits and checks and decay. There are four grading levels of logs depending on strength requirement –
beam, header, wall and utility. The grading sets a maximum number of defects for each classification.

The levels are:

Beam – Supports a structural load
Header – Above a window or a door
Wall – stacked wall
Utility – used for sheds and barns

The defect categories among others are:

Slope – The angle of the slope of the grain, i.e. the change of angle of the grain from parallel between the edges of the log. The larger the angle, the weaker the log.

Knots – There are numerous knot classifications. Defect rating is driven by knot circumference and concentration. The bigger the number, the lower the strength.

Checks and splits – Wood naturally develops cracks in the growth or drying process.

Decay – the wood rot caused by fungi.

Warp – a distortion of the log shape

Log standard enforcement is up to the local authority. It is not commonly enforced. Nonetheless, you as home owner should insist on grading. Graded logs are more expensive than ungraded but as they say, ‘you get what you pay for.’ The end result is more than worth it. Nonetheless, I would confirm that your manufacturer does grade the logs. They will stamp the logs or provide a certificate of grading. The Log Home Council does audit the manufacturer’s classifications. Personally, I would make it a condition in my sales contract. If you don’t ask, you will never know with absolute surety. If they balk, I wouldn’t trust them anyway.

Log Cabin Financing

Now is the time to build. The economy is still shaky, housing manufacturers are hungry for business, delivery lead times have come down and interest rates are low. Keep in mind, however, that log cabins are still different. Finding financing for them requires some extra diligence. Here are some tips.

Find lenders with log cabin financing experience. Don’t go down the road with an inexperienced bank only to discover insurmountable roadblocks. Your builder and/or manufacturer should be able to make recommendations based on their customer experience. Find out what problems other borrowers have run into. Ask prospective lenders what issues may arise that could cause a problem.

One common drawback of a log cabin is finding comps for the appraisal. Log cabins turn over much less frequently than traditional houses and there are fewer of them to begin with. There may be insufficient comps in the vicinity for determining appraisal value. Experienced log cabin lenders can usually overcome this problem.

If you are building a new log cabin as is often the case, construction loans will also be a consideration. The ideal structure is where the construction financing automatically rolls into a long term mortgage upon completion with the same lender. This minimizes closing costs and the need to deal with two separate institutions. The construction lender is secured by the value of the land and is more risky for the lender. Payments will consist of interest only.

The time frame for the construction is not always controllable so the longer the better. Keep in mind that log home manufacturers will expect full payment upon delivery of their materials. If the lender sells the mortgage to Freddie Mac, due to real estate market volatility (to the downside), there is a 120 day construction limit before a new appraisal must confirm the value of the property.

You will develop a construction schedule with your builder but always expect the unexpected. You should be prepared with contingency funds for those unexpected costs. A good example is someone I know who was building a new home and had agreed to a price with his builder. They immediately hit rock ledge upon excavation and his ‘cost plus’ fee took a significant bump up.

Local lenders with local access and decision makers are desirable but not necessary. You will need to develop your priorities, research your alternatives including the rates and closing costs for each lender. The lowest cost is not necessarily the best deal. There will always be tradeoffs.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Building a Log Cabin Basement

Including a basement in plans for our log cabin was a foregone conclusion. The slope of our property, on the side of a mountain ridge, made a basement necessary. Nonetheless, we would have considered a basement as a relatively cheap way to provide additional space. We plan on a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom and playroom for the grandchildren as well as storage and the utility room.

Dampness and darkness are the two major drawbacks of a basement. The dampness is primarily due to the coolness of the basement. Good insulation is a key to a warmer basement.

Our log cabin property slope will allow us to have a walkout basement with sliding glass doors and windows on the back end. A four foot slope is sufficient for windows and eight feet will work for a walkout setup. Windows and doors will provide a source of natural ventilation and light. They also reduce any potential exposure to radon. Having them face south, if practical, also improves the natural warmth.

If possible, plan on ten foot ceilings. A higher ceiling allows for ductwork for HVAC and a less confined atmosphere. There is additional cost but the tradeoff is more than worth it. Although it is optimal to finish the basement up front, you may be facing financial constraints that currently limit your options. You can always finish off the basement in the future but you need to plan ahead. It is crucial to include plumbing lines and drains for bathrooms etc. up front.

There are several options for type of basement construction. The floor base will be poured concrete. If you are not finishing the floor, a layer of rigid insulation and radiant barrier are recommended. Alternatively, stone, tile, carpet, vinyl and wood flooring can be applied. Wood flooring should be raised off the floor.

There are a number of walls construction options.

Concrete blocks – The advantage is the price as it is cheapest option. Hollow blocks will not provide anywhere near as good a support as solid. They are also susceptible to leakage.

Poured concrete – It has no seams that promote leaks and stronger than blocks. Should be sealed on outside. However, walls can develop settlement and shrinkage cracks.

Precast concrete walls – Concrete walls can be made offsite, cured and then transported to construction site.

Insulated concrete forms (ICF) – Hollow foam forms are fitted together and filled with poured concrete. ICF is more expensive than poured concrete. Foam provides moisture block and energy efficiency as foam also blocks heat escape.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Metal Roof on a Log Cabin

I’ve got to admit that I hadn’t seen (or didn’t know that I had seen) a metal roof on a house until I visited the land development where my wife and I bought our retirement property. A couple of the homes already built there were log cabins, both with green vertical panel metal roofs. I have to admit as well that the roofs aroused my curiosity since it was my intention to build a log cabin. They were definitely eye catching. My home ownership experience had included only asphalt shingles so it was time to do a little research.

I learned that, as usual, there was a price/benefit trade off between composition shingles made of fiberglass, asphalt and crushed rock and metal shingles. In addition to the cost of the metal, a breathable underlayment should be applied to the roofing deck to prevent moisture from accumulating under the metal. Metal roofs are definitely more expensive but provide the following benefits.

Longevity – Metal resists cracking, shrinking, erosion and exposure to weather extremes. Primer and finish paint are baked onto metal. While the composition shingle roof may last 15-30 years, metal roof warranties will cover up to 50 years with a longer true expected life. My experience (in the Northeast) with asphalt shingles has been 20 years at best.

Fireproof – Metal roofing is non combustable. \
Energy Efficient – Metal reflects sunlight rejecting 80-90 percent of the heat.
Sheds Snow and Ice

Metal options include steel, stainless steel, copper, zinc titanium. High performance coating options are polyesters, silicone modified polyesters and Kynar, a polyvinylidene floride.

Metal roofs also are manufactured in a number of different styles. While I saw only the vertical panel style, metal is available in the following forms.

Shingle slate – Resembles asphalt roofing
Tile – Resembles clay, ceramic or concrete tile
Shake – resembles wood shakes
Vertical panel - easy to fabricate on the job site, have interlocking seams

Don’t forget that the quality of your roof depends on the quality of instalation. Make sure you're installer has done plenty of metal roofs. Check for satisfied customers. Don't choose the right roof but the wrong contractor.

Having seen only one metal roof style, I will be searching for homes with the other styles before choosing one for pricing. Then I will be doing a cost/benefit analysis before deciding between metal and asphalt for my log cabin. My wife and I both have life expectancies that are definitely much shorter than that of a new metal roof. Will my children want to keep the cabin after we’re gone? Our research will continue.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Situating a Log Cabin on Your Property

You’ve found that property for your log cabin that’s perfect. How do you determine where the cabin should be located on the property? Here are a number of factors to consider.

First, do you have a survey of the property? Will you need to create a site plan for approval? I’ve got a plot of property boundaries for my street but no individual survey boundaries marked on my property. A survey is my next investment. You may eventually need a surveyor to document the actual location of the house on the property for zoning and lender approval. Find out up front.

Do you have a plot plan of the property? Trace copies of it to lay out potential house locations.

What are your zoning constraints? What are the setback rules, i.e., how many feet from your property lines must you allow from your property lines for construction. Are there any other constraints? Research them up front.

Do you require a septic system? If so, you will need a perc test done before buying the property. This test will determine if the soil will support a septic system. The tester is licensed and digs pits with a backhoe, fills them with water and measures how long it takes the water to drain. Make sure that the test is performed where the system will likely be located. Multiple potential locations are recommended. Local regulation may have guidelines on placement of the system. Check them out.

Where are water drainage pathways on your property? Look for a location where water will drain away from the house. To circumvent this recommendation, plan on building retaining walls, draining tiles or other construction techniques to redirect/block water from the home.

Which direction should your home face? I’m going to orient my house to maximize the mountain views from the rear porch and large windows I will have in the rear. If energy conservation is more important, maximize solar heating and exposure to the South by orienting the elongated direction of the house to run east/west. Passive solar heating can reduce energy costs by 30 percent.

How about a driveway and parking? The further (and longer) from the road, the more expensive.

Have you factored in utility costs? How will the location effect how much will they cost to install?