Many people spend months or even years planning the log home of their dreams. They tour home shows, scour magazines and review house plans with giddy anticipation.
When construction finally starts, their pride and elation can’t be denied. After all, as British postmodern novelist Angela Carter wrote, “home is where the heart is.”
Although no experience can compare with seeing a dream come to fruition, let’s face it, the actual process of building a custom home can create anxiety.
You have to wade through myriad decisions and navigate the ins and outs of dozens of construction steps.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to avoid the common pitfalls?
Well, there is.
Following are seven secrets that log home construction experts and homeowners who have gone through the construction process recommend to keep your project on track and within budget.
1. Educate yourself.
Before you even start planning your new home, stop and consider whether you know enough about the processes to ask relevant questions and make the many decisions that are required when building a custom home.
“Be honest with yourself,” says log home project consultant, former builder-dealer and author Jim Cooper. “Ask yourself how much you really know about construction.” If your answer is “not much,” it’s time for a crash course.
If you don’t take the time to educate yourself, it could lead to costly mistakes.
For example, when working with a surveyor, one of Jim’s clients once asked, “How much for the septic field?” The surveyor told the client, he would need to spend “about $800.”
“What the surveyor was really telling the client was that to do the engineering drawing for their septic field would cost about $800,” recalls Jim. “The septic field itself cost $12,000 to $14,000.”
But the client didn’t understand the difference between engineering a septic field and actually installing one, so the surveyor’s answer was misleading.
2. Don’t go it alone.
Whether you employ a general contractor or builder or decide to build your home on your own, you’ll still need to collaborate with professionals and subcontractors. If you don’t have experience dealing with these pros, or you’re not comfortable doing it, you may want to consider hiring a project manager or facilitator. “The cost of this is generally about half the price of a general contractor,” says Jim.
For example, The Construction Process Group in Ortonville, Michigan, helps home owners in a variety of ways.
The company’s program includes about eight hours of work on a house. They review plans from a design standpoint, examine whether the log home package provides all the materials needed to build the home and review the customer’s site.
“We make sure the home owners have thought about all the different ramifications that building out in the country can bring,” says partner Guy Huenecke, a long-time expert in the log home field.
“Often they just assume things are available, like access to water. A thorough review lets us assist in developing a realistic budget.”
There is also some education about money.
“We help them understand how the cash needs to flow,” Guy says.
Even if you don’t want to spend money on experts, it pays to seek advice. When Kim and John Wary of Rogers, Arkansas, decided to act as their own builders and general contractors, they knew they were taking a leap of faith.
“There were times that I didn’t know if we could do it,” says John, “but you can’t be afraid to ask for help.” They talked to others who had built log homes in their area to learn what the entire process entailed. John even went to job sites to watch construction of other homes during various stages.
Throughout the design, delivery and construction of their home, Kim and John relied heavily on their log package supplier, Original Log Homes in British Columbia, Canada.
“They went above and beyond for us,” says John.
“There were times when I would call them every day and ask questions for 20 minutes. But they were always approachable and supportive.”
As a backup, the Warys employed the services of a log home builder in their area on a consultative basis. “He built other homes for our supplier,” says John. “I only had to call him a few times, but it was a comfort to know that I had that extra support if I needed it.”
3. Understand the scope of the work.
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of home owners to stay with their original plan, aspects of a custom-home project can get off budget. When that happens, often the cause can be traced to one of two reasons: A subcontractor low-balled a price, then wrote the contract so loosely it didn’t include everything needed to complete the work; or, the bid wasn’t accurate because no one completely defined what was expected.
A classic example of the second problem occurs when a home is being assembled.
As the crew raises the logs, they also usually drill holes to run wires for the electrical system. But who ends up routing the openings in the logs for the junction boxes?
Typically, electricians won’t do that type of, they think of it as a carpenter’s job. And the carpenters consider it part of the electrical work. If neither party has budgeted for the job, you can end up with 12 hours or more of labor costs that aren’t covered in your contracts. This can lead to a couple thousand dollars in unanticipated costs, according to Guy.
“You can’t have breaks within the scope of the work,” Guy says. “You need to be sure everything is covered.”
To avoid a problem like this, you need to make sure you understand the entire scope of the work that needs to be done, then communicate what you expect to the subcontractors. At The Construction Process Group, Guy prepares a “scope of work” document. “This clearly defines who does each task so that the bids you receive will be accurate and nothing will come back to bite you,” he explains.
4. Develop a budget (and stick to it).
It’s easy to give in to the temptation to add fancier features and upgraded appliances. After all, each change may only add a hundred dollars or so to the cost of a home. But it all adds up. “Before you know it, the budget is thousands of dollars off track,” says Guy. Letting the budget get away from you can lead to long-term problems.
“Often, when people overspend their budgets, they tend to skimp at the end of the process, when it comes time to stain or seal the logs,” says Guy.
“Coatings are one of the products where you really get what you pay for.” Skimp here and you could end up with logs that look weathered before their time, or worse, fall victim to rot and insect damage.
To stay on budget, experts suggest you try your hand at one of the financial management software programs on the market, such as QuickBooks, which even sells a specially designed contractor edition. One thing they do not recommend, however, is to purposely overbudget, or create a “fudge factor.” By doing so, you can create more problems than you’ll avoid.
“That means the budget is off track everywhere,” says Construction Pro
cess Group partner Jim Christopher, who believes in budgeting realistically. “I tell clients to be prepared to spend an additional 10 percent over that budget for owner-directed expenses,” says Jim.
“Then I ask them to show the restraint not to use it.”
5. Pitch in.
No matter who you choose to oversee your project, there are creative ways you can stay involved and keep costs down. When Steve Hissong built his own log home in Belleville, Ohio, he looked for subcontractors who were willing to let him work alongside them. “My heating guy knocked $700 off the total cost of my project because we worked together in the evenings,” says Steve.
Often referred to as sweat equity, by finishing floors, tile, trim work, sanding and staining yourself, you can save a bundle of money, while taking pride in the fact that you helped to build your own home.
6. Check out your contractors.
Don’t pick your contractors by simply looking in the phonebook. When you are spending this kind of money and working on a project of this magnitude, you’ll want to base your decision on more informed and personal recommendations. Guy suggests that home owners go to a local lumberyard to inquire about qualified subcontractors.
“That’s where the tradespeople do business, not Lowe’s,” he says.
Your local home builder’s association is another possible source for good contractors.
You can find your local chapter by logging on to the National Association of Home Builders’ web site (www.nahb.com) and clicking on “Contact Us” or by calling 800-368-5242.
Once you’ve narrowed your choices to a few contractors, ask each one for the names of past customers you can call. Then take the time to check the references and ask probing questions such as did the contractor stay on schedule? Did he accommodate change orders? Did he stay on budget?
Also, ask to visit potential contractors at a job site where they are currently working. “When a job’s not finished, you can see a lot,” says log home owner Steve Hissong.
“You’ll also get a sense for the kind of people who are doing the work, and whether they are using quality tools.”
The experts also recommend that when you’ve narrowed down your list of potential contractors, you get at least three quotes for every job you need to do and everything you need to buy.
It’s well worth the effort. “It took a lot of time to get all those bids,” says Steve, “and initially I wasn’t sure if it was really going to be worth it. But, it was. The house ended up appraising for 30 percent more than I put in it.”
7. Respect the professionals.
Although everyone wants to get the best price, you have to accept that working with a contractor is not like buying a used car. “You shouldn’t beat down a contractor until you get your bottom dollar,” says Guy.
“Your contractor has to make a reasonable amount of money so he can have the time and resources he needs to do a good job.”
Come to terms with the fact that no one is going to build your home for free.
The more involved the house is, the more the contractor’s fee will likely be.