Updated February 22, 2023
Despite their origins in Northern Europe, log homes offer a distinctly North American feel. From the early cabins built by the pioneers to multi-million-dollar modern properties, log homes match grandeur with a unique sense of being at one with nature in a way that many find hard to resist.
However, log homes can be a minefield for potential buyers, as (somewhat unsurprisingly, given that construction techniques can be traced back almost a thousand years) these properties require expert knowledge to stand the test of time. So, here’s everything you need to know before you buy.
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As a potential homeowner, it pays to do your research, regardless of the type of property. This is especially true in the case of log homes, given that a comparatively high proportion of properties are built-to-order. So, let’s start with the basics:
As the name suggests, a log home is a structure built with interlocking logs and notching at the corners. The specific way the logs are laid (and the manner in which they bear weight) determines the construction type- more on this later. Where log homes were once the de facto construction style in North America, modern construction techniques and building material are generally more affordable. As such, log homes are now typically seen as specialty properties, often reserved for cabins or second homes.
That said, there’s no reason a log home could not be a primary residence. But, if you’re thinking of purchasing, it’s a good idea to know the pros and cons before you sign the dotted line.
For many, the primary benefit to a log home is its aesthetic appeal. Relatively straightforward construction usually allows load-bearing logs to be visible internally. Log homes are also surprisingly energy efficient; often more so than modern properties. Not only is wood a great natural insulator, it’s also extremely durable and holds up well to extreme events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and snowstorms. Finally, log homes are often available in kits. So, those serious about DIY could save significantly on construction costs.
As mentioned, log homes are usually more expensive per square foot to construct than a conventional property. Log homes are also naturally susceptible to water damage. Specifically, owners should be wary of carpenter bees, termites, carpenter ants and ultimately, rot. Many log homes also experience issues with settling– a process whereby homes physically shift over time due to the force they exert on the soil below.
Generally, log homes require more maintenance than conventional properties (such as staining, which may need to be re-applied every 3-5 years), and city residents may find it more difficult to get planning permission for an urban log home. Log homes can also be more difficult to insure.
Whether you’re buying a resale property or designing your own from scratch, it pays to understand the construction method used in your home. A variety of construction types exist (you can read more about them here), but here are the three most frequently seen in North America:
Stacked (or full scribe) construction creates the quintessential style that most people imagine when they picture a log home. Here, logs are stacked horizontally to form both exterior and interior walls; no additional drywall is required. The underside of the logs contain grooves which allow them to form a tight seal. This gives the structure rigidity and aids both thermal efficiency and weatherproofing. Full scribe homes are notoriously sturdy, due mainly to the sheer mass of the supporting structure. Also, as the logs require little fabrication, the structure of the home can be erected in as little as 1-4 days once site preparation is complete.
However, this style is typically the most expensive to build, and care must be taken to maintain tight-fitting joinery as the home settles. Larger designs may also require the installation of weight-bearing vertical posts for designs featuring multiple floors.
This popular construction style uses a series of vertical “posts” which carry horizontal “beams” to support the weight of the property. Once the frame of the house is erect, the remaining walls are framed with either stacked logs, cinderblocks, or timber. Post and beam construction requires fewer logs and is therefore cheaper than the full scribe method. Interior beams are usually left exposed; an often-coveted design feature.
This type of property features flexible design guidelines, affording both homeowners and architects the opportunity for creativity- think large bay windows and steeply peaked roofs, similar to those shown on the popular HGTV show Timber Kings. Post and beam log homes are also thermally efficient and experience fewer issues with settling than stacked log homes. The small list of negatives is confined only to their longer construction time; typically 1-2 months.
Square-cut log homes (also known as timber frame or hybrid log homes) are almost identical in construction to post and beam properties. The only difference is that logs are sawn to create a flat (or square) profile, instead of their naturally rounded shape. Many owners choose more contemporary exterior siding with this kind of log home.
Square-cut log homes share the long list of advantages and relatively few drawbacks noted above for post and beam log homes. The difference comes down to personal aesthetic taste.
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As mentioned, the most significant concerns for log homes usually involve moisture, so preventative maintenance forms a large part of a log home’s upkeep. The first step comes in the design process: to ensure rainwater doesn’t pool around low-lying logs, the roof must extend past the foundation with sufficient overhang.
Many maintenance tasks, such as clearing gutters and downspouts of debris or checking the condition of the roof, are identical to those homeowners should conduct on conventional homes. However, there are some tasks that are specific to log home ownership. For example, it’s a good idea to check the condition of the exterior twice per year, paying specific attention to those areas exposed to the most extreme weather. Sun, wind, rain and snow can all have an adverse effect on the condition of logs, but while cracks are somewhat unavoidable, they’re far from a death sentence.
Log homes require annual washing. Various detergents are available for this purpose, but for peace of mind, you can always hire a professional. Each year, you’ll also want to inspect your chinking- the sealant that forms a gasket between logs. As new cracks form in the logs, it’s important to seal them from the elements to avoid rot. Experts also recommend re-staining the entire property every three years to avoid sun damage.
Finally, given that many log homes are vacation properties, care must also be taken to avoid extended periods of vacancy. You may be surprised by the speed at which rot can spread through your home.
One word haunts the dreams of log home owners above all others; rot. If you experience rotten logs at your property, take action immediately to curtail the spread. Essentially, owners are faced with two options; the choice depends upon the degree of damage.
For minor damage, contractors will drill holes at six-inch intervals along the infected region. This exposes the moist wood to the air, allowing it to dry over the course of weeks, or sometimes months. Once dry, holes are filled with a wood-based epoxy. For more significant issues, sections of damaged logs may need to be removed completely and replaced.
As mentioned, insuring a log home can be more complicated, and often more expensive, than insuring a conventional property. However, there exists a misconception that log homes present a fire risk. In fact, they’re actually less susceptible to fire damage than standard wood-framed properties. As keen campers will attest, getting logs to burn is more difficult than you might think. Heavy timber construction falls in the fourth of five fire safety categories, with traditional frame-built houses faring one category worse. The difficulty in insuring these properties usually stems from their rural location and the associated lack of firefighting infrastructure.
That depends on how well constructed and maintained it is. Some manufacturers claim that their homes are rated by engineers to last 300+ years; a feat that seems not unreasonable when considering that some European log homes are still going strong at almost 800 years old. However, 60-150 years might be a more realistic timeframe for an average log home.
The logs used for construction in this type of property possess natural insulating properties due to their size and mass. In summer, wood absorbs heat and distributes it evenly throughout the night. In winter, the reverse is true. As a result, log homes are often more thermally efficient than homes using modern insulating materials.
This question is understandably difficult to answer, as the cost to build depends on principally on the design. While pre-fabricated kits may offer better value for money, expect to pay around $100-$200 per square foot for a custom log home. And, don’t forget that this fee doesn’t include the land the property will sit on, or construction costs.
It may come as some surprise to find that yes, log homes are generally seen as more eco-friendly than homes made of modern building materials. While they do require the felling of trees, many manufacturers participate in re-growth schemes. Trees selected for harvesting are typically older, which means they absorb less CO2 than the trees that replace them. Log homes also tend to last longer than the amount of time it takes to replace the tree, resulting in a process that’s carbon negative overall.
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