The big log house also comes in a kit

Remember how you used to build houses out of little toy logs when you were a kid -- to gingerly put on the green roof and top it off with a little red chimney?

Well, that's the way it was for Steve and Cheryl Curtis when they built their full-size log home five years ago in West Hatfield, Mass.

The log house had all the appeal of pioneer days, although the Curtises didn't have to cut down trees because all the precut logs came in a handy log-home package with full directions on how to assemble it.

But as in the past, the whole family, plus two brothers and some friends, pitched in to help in the construction. Curious neighbors and travelers stopped by to ask questions. While the novelty now has worn off as other log homes have been built in the area, the Curtises still like to talk about their achievement.

Steve and Cheryl and their neighbors are part of a trend. The log-home industry now is an established alternative to the suburban frame home, says Paul J. Gomez, director of operations for the National Association of Home Manufacturers (NAHM).

In 1971, he adds, fewer than 2,500 log homes were built. Today, by contrast, the annual figure tops 25,000, with 85 percent year- round dwellings and the rest seasonal vacation homes.

Even businesses are building with logs, especially restaurants and motels. And so is at least one town hall and a town library. Lincoln Logs Ltd. in Chestertown, N.Y., added a new line of commercial log buildings this year to further the trend.

The Log Home Council of the NAHM predicts that sales of log houses will reach an average increase of 30 percent a year. A few sales already have been made to Japan, South America, and western Europe.

"I don't see any change in the basic growth pattern," asserts Peter Fillion, president of Authentic Homes Corporation in Laramie, Wyo., although he admits the current recession in the housing industry has affected log- home starts as well. But when the industry recovers from the downturn, he says he anticipates an annual growth rate of 20 to 25 percent.

The growing demand for less-expensive homes has brought more than 200 companies into the business of selling log-home packages with the larger firms reporting 50 or more dealers each throughout the country.

Prospective home buyers should be wary, however. Like any fast-growing industry, get- rich-quick entrepreneurs are part of the trend as well as the more solid firms that have been around a while. Some of the practices of the less-trustworthy companies include poor engineering and design, kits with parts that don't fit together well, and complicated building instructions.

Buyers are urged to deal only with a distributor of a reputable firm, says Mr. Fillion. The Log Home Council in Falls Church, Va., can help to verify a firm's credibility.

Buyers also should talk with a firm's customers and even visit their homes, if possible. Most dealers will provide a list of log-house owners if they're asked to do so.

Log homes play into the growing back-to- nature and build-it-yourself trends in the US. They also appeal to people who want to save money by using less-expensive logs instead of traditional building materials. Also, they can save on labor costs by doing much of the work themselves.

While estimates vary, a log house will save from 10 to 30 percent of the cost of a traditional home, according to the manufacturers. The largest part of the saving is the reduced labor cost. The saving also depends on how much added insulation you need as well as other extras which are available to the buyer. It's a lot like buying a new car. You have to check off the options you want in order to arrive at the price.

Further, you pay for the shipping charge from the home plant to your building site. It may cost $3,000 or more to ship a log-home package across the country, for example.

"People should not, however, choose a log home just to save money," cautions Mr. Curtis. "They must like the log-cabin atmosphere and be willing to do some of their own work."

Will it take all summer and half the winter to put a log house together?

Not at all, says Clark Harding, manager of the New England Log Homes plant in Great Barrington, Mass. "An experienced four-man crew can build a log home in two weeks," he asserts. But even if the home buyer works alone, he can finish the basic construction in two months -- just working weekends and nights -- according to Mr. Harding.

Most manufacturers will build the home for the buyer at an added cost.

The basic log-home package consists of wood or log floors, walls and roof, plus windows, doors, caulking, and sometimes insulation. The buyer has to prepare the homesite and foundation for the building. Too, the owners are responsible for adding the plumbing, wiring, and heating systems.

With the aid of computers, the manufacturer can adapt a model to suit an individual's need. Room sizes can be changed and windows moved to accommodate the buyer's design.

The total price for the finished home is about double the purchase price of the log- home package.

Log-home units range from $5,000 to $28,000, depending on the size and options wanted. Names for the different log-home models reflect the back-to-nature trend -- Alpine Chalet, Timberwood, Winchester, Algonquin, and Cobble Creek, among them.

The buyer usually pays for part of the package on order and the rest when the package is delivered to the building site.

Banks and savings and loan associations are more willing to finance log homes now that log homes meet national building standards. The industry has documented the structural and thermal qualities of log homes in the past few years.

"Insurance rates are sometimes lower than for a conventional home," reports Mr. Curtis, "because the interior is classified as 'unfinished.'"

The industry has responded to the energy crisis by improving the insulation between logs and joints. Precut grooves and foam insulation have replaced the traditional mud and pitch to insure a tight fit for the logs.

Some manufacturers offer the customer some suggestions on how to take advantage of passive solar concepts. Since solar design depends on the site, standard solar designs for each model are not provided.

The resale value of log homes compares to frame homes, declares Mr. Fillion. "They even may have a 5 percent premium," he adds, "since some buyers are reluctant to build an unconventional home but are willing to buy the finished log home."

The choice of wood in a log house depends on the manufacturers. They might use lodgepole; yellow, red, or white pine; and Engelmann spruce.

As to upkeep, the outside of the building needs to be treated periodically with a preservative which is sprayed on with a nozzle attached to a garden hose. The cost is much less than regular house paint, manufacturers claim.

For those with initiative, some willing friends, and a nostalgia for Daniel Boone-type pioneering -- or grownups who just liked to play with toy logs when they were kids -- the log home may indeed be in their future.

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