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LOG RHYTHM : Trend: Today's spacious, custom-built log homes have come a long way since the drafty, one-room structures of yore, as one former Orange County couple can attest.


Once the province of rough-and-ready types heading full-bore into the 19th Century, log homes have begun to penetrate a larger market of well-heeled suburbanites looking for a genteel version of the backwoods life.

"As much as anything, people are buying the lifestyle," says Mark Moreland, vice president of Rocky Mountain Log Homes in Hamilton, Mont. "They'll buy in Orange County, for example, but they'll envision themselves somewhere else."

In fact, the term log home is a narrow and inadequate description for this housing market niche, but no one has come up with a better term.

Log home suggests too much rusticity for the average urban dweller, conjuring visions of outdoor plumbing and cold winds blowing through cracks of space between the logs. But manufactured housing dredges up images of mobile homes, and pre-crafted and kit smack of modular warehousing.

But terminology is only one of the obstacles that manufacturers are struggling to overcome in this market.

Log home designs range from thick, round, hand-hewn logs with protruding corners, to clapboard styles virtually indistinguishable from stick-built homes. They're delivered in such a variety of packages that it is difficult for potential buyers to compare apples to apples. And, log homes exhibit certain traits as they age that keep some buyers at a distance.

Log homes represent only a small part of the single-family housing market in the United States, but sales are estimated at 20,000 homes a year. The industry has evolved from an 80% do-it-yourself market to something quite the opposite.

"It's no longer the weekend warrior type of theme," says Jerry Rouleau, director of marketing for Real Log Homes in Vermont. "The owner is heavily involved, but not from a do-it-yourself perspective."

And forget the one-room cabin image. Custom log homes can be 5,000 square feet or more. The primary market for Real Log Homes is people in their 30s and 40s with incomes of $40,000 or more, Rouleau says. He adds that more than 80% of his company's homes are used as primary residences.

Steve Janowski of Quality Log Homes in Crestline, a company that specializes in log home construction throughout California, says most of the log homes he is building are 1,600 square feet or more.

Verne and Marilyn Dorn, formerly of Orange and now residents of Sugarloaf, near Big Bear, built a three-story, 2,900-square-foot log home that Marilyn Dorn designed. They called on New England Log Homes to translate her design into a log home package they could handle themselves.

Starting in May, 1989, they finished the house in nine months, putting up the logs and doing finish work with family and help from the New England Log Homes dealer in San Diego. They had to hire a crane to lift the beams on each floor, but they were able to put up the logs in eight weeks.

Predictably, the customized look and increasing girth of the average log home has pushed prices skyward.

"The (finished) log home will cost the same as a well-built custom home," Moreland says. A rough price guide for a log home package is $20 to $30 a square foot, excluding land, plumbing, electricity, finishing costs and any customization of the original design. The turnkey cost will be roughly $75 a square foot, excluding the land.

Marilyn Dorn says that her home cost about $80 a square foot, not including the land, but the couple went the high-end route on the finish work. She estimates they saved about $20 a square foot by building the house themselves.

The Dorns' choice of log home supplier resulted from six months of research. With more than 450 manufacturers nationally, the log home business is very competitive. Many of these are very small suppliers that build only regionally, but there are eight to 10 manufacturers who operate nationally, says Ken Payton, a Real Log Homes rep in Colfax, Calif.

The log home style has been slow to penetrate California. Rugged structural engineering requirements throughout California keep many manufacturers out of the state, explains Scott Baker of New England Log Homes. While many of the home designs would meet the state's requirements, only the largest companies can deliver the detailed blueprints and structural calculations required.

Log homes come under the state housing law and the Uniform Building Code's heavy timber construction section, according to Kathie Parrish, spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development in Sacramento. Actual oversight and approvals come from local building officials.

As the Dorns discovered, simply gathering enough information to make an informed choice requires a moderate investment of money and time. Manufacturers' catalogues range from $5 to $25.

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