By Joe Bousquin
Illustration by James Yang
Like many people who dream of building a log home, Susan Butler-Colwell thought she could save money if she managed the job herself. "I read all the magazine articles and thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ " says Susan, who lives in the suburbs of northern Virginia.
"I knew I could save 25 percent of the construction costs, because that’s the average a general contractor makes on a job,’ she says. "What I didn’t know–and what I think a lot of people don’t realize–is that there’s a domino effect in construction, where every action has a reaction. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, the results can be extremely unpleasant."
After hiring a subcontractor to pour her foundation, she discovered the slab wasn’t prepared with her log home in mind: her builder couldn’t do his job with the work that had already been done. To fix the problem, she hired another subcontractor, recommended by her builder, to retrofit the foundation. Of course, she had to pay more for the additional work. It was the kind of extra expense she became intimately familiar with throughout the build.
From the get-go, Susan’s trial-and-error approach earned her a batch of unpleasant–and expensive–problems. "Every time we turned around, another issue would come up, and each time it did, it was to the tune of $50,000 or $60,000," she laments.
"It wasn’t that anyone had really done anything wrong," she continues, "it was just that there was this huge disconnect between each of the contractors on the job, and that’s what I didn’t realize. Construction is a well-timed ballet that takes decades to understand, especially when you’re building a custom home."
In the end, though, Susan and her husband, Cerphe, a deejay at a popular Washington, D.C., rock station, were able to complete their stunning, 4,300-square-foot home of 8-inch, northern white pine logs and saddle-notched corners. But the job only got done after convincing a general contractor, Mike Stone, to come in and rescue the project.
"Mike was like the cavalry when he came in to save the day," Susan says.
Did they save any money by trying to do some work themselves? Susan just laughs at the question. "No," she says dryly. "In fact, my husband and I now joke that we can’t have children, because we’ve already spent their college education."
Despite the challenges they faced, Susan and Cerphe fell so in love with log homes while building their own, they decided to become dealers for Wilderness Log Homes, the Plymouth, Wisconsin-based company that supplied their logs. They now own and operate Reston, Virginia-based Wilderness Log Homes of Northern Virginia and have partnered with Mike, the general contractor who agreed to finish their project, to help clients build their homes.
Susan and Cerphe’s experience is hardly unique within the world of log home construction.
Though some log home companies–and, yes, even some log home magazines– promote the idea that building a log home yourself is a manageable process that can save a big chunk of change, the reality can be quite different, some industry insiders say.
It’s not that well-intentioned home owners can’t learn construction techniques and build it themselves. It’s just that the learning process often ends up taking longer–and costing more–than it would have if they had hired a general contractor to coordinate the job in the first place.
Fact or Fiction?
"One of my biggest pet peeves is the idea that building your log home yourself will save you major dollars," says Phil Lakamp, vice president of Wholesale Logs of America, a log broker in Eldon, Missouri. "It’s just a fallacy."
Phil ought to know. Before becoming a log broker, he worked as a general contractor and sold liability insurance to architects and engineers. With his multifaceted perspective on the construction industry and log homes, he’s come to a simple conclusion: "If one out of 10 people serves as his or her own general contractor on a log home and saves money, it’s often because they already have some kind of construction experience," Phil says. "Otherwise, it just doesn’t happen."
Phil says the real skill of a general contractor comes not from hammering nails and stacking logs. Instead, a contractor’s true expertise comes from the ability to bring together different subcontractors and get them to work in procession so that each specific part of the job flows into the next, without costly mistakes.
"Success has a lot to do with a general contractor’s ability to coordinate a project," Phil says. "He can get the materials, suppliers and subcontractors in there in a timely and orderly manner, because he already has relationships with them. And that’s something that your average home owner just doesn’t have."
In addition, there may be more accountability on a project that’s run by an experienced contractor. For instance, if a plumber routinely works for a specific general contractor, he has added incentive to show up on time, do a good job and charge a fair price, since he knows the general contractor will give him more work in the future if he does.
If that same plumber thinks he’s doing a one-time job for a home owner who’s only going to build one house, he might charge more or be less enthusiastic about the project, especially if he has to hold an inexperienced home owner’s hand during the process.
Time Is Money
Then, of course, there’s the time that’s required of a home owner who wants to work as his own general contractor. He’s usually working a full-time job to pay for the house. Add that to the emotional attachment he has to the home–which can make objective decisions more difficult–and having someone by your side throughout the process starts to make a lot of sense.
"Building is not a linear process," says Chris Weyer, a sales consultant at Beaver Mountain Log & Cedar Homes in Hancock, New York. "There are going to be ups and downs, and having someone to help mitigate those ups and downs will give you a better building experience."
In fact, hiring a general contractor may be less expensive in the long run. "Whatever the general contractor is charging you, he’s definitely earning his money," Susan says. "He’s saving you from paying extra for the things that go wrong."
Still got your heart set on building "sweat-equity" into your log home? Don’t despair. While experts recommend against going it completely alone, there are still plenty of jobs that can be completed by the average home owner, with a little research and careful planning. The key is to be selective about the jobs you decide to take on and make sure they’re a match for your own skills.
"One of the first things you want to do is take an inventory of your talents," says Rich Horn, marketing manager of Northeastern Log Homes in Kenduskeag, Maine. "Sometimes, the sweat equity you get from clearing the lot might be something you or someone in your family is able to do–if you’re comfortable with chain saws. Think about the equipment you or your friends might have available."
Another manageable DIY job is installing your home’s deck. "A deck is a good project, because you can get the general contractor to put in the supports, and you can finish it," Rich says. "In some cases, you might be able to finish the deck after the home itself is complete. But I’d draw the line at doing porches, because that involves a roof, and roofs get complicated."
Other DIY projects are found in the smaller details of your home, such as hand railings for the stairs and lofts, baseboard trim, tilework or applying finishes on the logs and walls. Often, stone veneer on a manufactured fireplace can be installed by a layperson with a little education and preparation.
If you’re determined to add more DIY experience to your repertoire, keep an eye out for free mini-courses at your local home improvement stores or contact manufacturers to see if they have workshops in your area.
Save The Day
Another way to save money without getting your hands dirty is to be involved in the decision-making process as much as possible when it comes time to select materials.
"We encourage our customers to play active roles in material selection, to question quotes and to ask for justification about what they’re being charged," says Chris Chames, sales manager at Log Home Outlet in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
"You’re going to save a lot more money doing that than if you let the general contractor, or some other individual, make those decisions for you," says Chris.
When selecting materials, decide where you can save and when to splurge. Defining attributes of your home, such as custom kitchen cabinets, a stone fireplace or granite countertops may be worth the money. You may be able to go for lower- to mid-range-priced materials, though, for items you’ll need to buy in quantity such as lighting fixtures, flooring, doors and windows.
"If you choose lighting fixtures that cost $500 a piece, and you need 70 fixtures total throughout your home, that really adds up," according to Susan.
And just because some materials cost less doesn’t necessarily mean the quality is sub-par. Often, once the wow factor has worn off a home’s amenities, they blend into the background.
"I like to tell my clients to take the ‘three week test,’ " Susan says. "Are you really going to notice that $2,500 door after three weeks? If not, you can probably get a good quality, pre-hung door that gets the job done for $350."
Whatever jobs you decide to take on yourself, make sure you’ve thought them through, have a plan and know what you’ll get out of it in the end.
"There are right and wrong reasons for doing it yourself," says Chris. "A lot of people think they’re going to save money, and that’s usually not what happens." But if you want the satisfaction of building your home with your own hands, the first task you tackle should be to fill your head with all the log home-construction knowledge you can find.