Here’s what you need to know about buying a cabin.

By Stacy Durr Albert

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For many of us, the phrase “package deal” evokes happy thoughts. Whether you’re planning a dream vacation or simply hoping to bundle your TV, phone, and Internet services, an all-inclusive package that consolidates everything you need is hard to pass up.

Today’s cabins often come in packages, too: Home kits can be purchased as all-inclusive, turn-key packages that include everything from the front door to the bathroom sink, plus all the walls and building elements in between. Of course, basic, shell-only packages are also available, so determining what kit is right for you takes a bit of homework.

“A home is a very personal thing,” says Ehren Graf, home and design consultant/manager at Wisconsin Log Homes. “Take the time to educate yourself as to what you are getting and what is being presented to you.”

Types of packages

Before you begin shopping, you need to understand a few things about packages. In simple terms, a home package is a collection of building materials that are combined for consumers. The materials range from just enough items to build the basic shell of a home, to every interior detail needed to finish it. Here’s a rundown of the most popular package types:

Basic, walls only:
Popular with do-it-yourselfers, it contains just the materials needed to erect the cabin’s walls: panelized walls, logs (precut or random-length), sealants and fasteners.
Note: This package is the cheapest up-front, but may end up costing more later on once you add roofing and other materials.

Weathertight/structural shell:
The next level takes the basic package and adds materials you need to protect your home from the elements, such as exterior doors, windows and materials for the roofing system. Some companies may also include porch railings, stairs and floor systems.

Complete package:
The definition of complete varies by company, but it generally includes most of the materials you need (inside and out) to finish the home. Some companies may also offer turn-key packages that literally include every last detail you need to move in (from appliances to window treatments).

Comparison shopping

Shopping for a home isn’t like purchasing a car or dishwasher – too many variables make it difficult to compare one package to the next, especially when companies label their packages differently.

“Not all packages are created equal,” warns Gabe Gordon, director of marketing for Katahdin Cedar Log Homes. “You need to ignore package prices at first and really focus on what’s included in the package. Every producer’s package will be different, so you need to understand what you are buying before you can ever start to compare prices.”

Some sample questions to ask as you look at a materials list include: What brand of windows and doors are included? Are the logs or timbers precut? Are the interior doors hollow core or solid? What species of wood will be used? What type of roofing system is included? What about insulation?

If you’re considering a modular building system, Mike Zangardi, director of business development for Ritz-Craft Corporation, recommends: “Consider three important factors for your special site: well thought-out design elements specific to the prevailing styles and regional characteristics, a manufacturer with a high regard for quality materials and energy-efficiency features and a qualified and experienced builder to manage the many variables of the site constructed portions of the job.”

Comparing home packages can be like comparing apples to oranges. Request a detailed listing to help you do a line-by-line, item-by-item comparison. Know what you want ahead of time in terms of square footage, layout and quality.

To get a true comparison, request a quote and detailed material list for the exact same plan from several different producers, Gordon says. “If the list includes vague items, send it back and demand more detail.”

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Total cost

Many first-time buyers make the same mistake when they look at the price of a cabin package: they assume it’s the final, total cost. “The price of a package does not directly correlate to the price of the completed home,” Gordon explains. “There are four major areas of cost to focus on: what’s included, what’s not included, how much it will cost to build, and how much it will cost to operate and maintain once it’s finished.”

Years ago, log home producers said you could estimate the finished price of a log home by multiplying the package price by three. This formula is now outdated. “Today, materials packages vary so much that an industry-wide multiplier cannot be used,” Gordon says. “The only true way to get an accurate estimate on the finish price is to put a detailed set of plans in front of your builder.”

When estimating final costs, remember that a number of factors must be considered. “There are three main issues to consider that affect pricing,” says Joe Folker, owner of Timberhaven Log Homes. “Quantity, quality and services all play a part. You can purchase as much or as little from a home manufacturer as you want, but just remember that all the materials for your project must eventually be purchased from somewhere.”

Saving money

So, are there ways you can save money when buying a cabin package? Yes, and no. It depends on what you are looking for, and whether you have the resources to do some of the work yourself or if you plan to leave it entirely to the professionals.

Cottage or cabin dreamers with a budget may want to consider a modular building system for its cost effectiveness compared to site-built construction.

“Remote locations typically drive the cost of labor up, so modules with a high percentage of the labor completed off-site can dramatically reduce the final cost of the home,” Zangardi explains. “Modular plans come in all sizes from modest to elaborate so buyers in all price ranges should have a great many choices to fit their personal needs.”

Regardless of the type of construction, one thing to consider is design. “The more simplistic the design, the less it will cost to build,” Gordon explains. Complex rooflines, added corners and bump-outs will all raise the cost of construction.

Another area to look into is the grade of the wood. “Sometimes a manufacturer will offer ‘cabin-grade’ logs and timbers available at a reduced cost,” Folker says. “They may not meet with the strict visual standards used for first-quality logs, but they are structurally sound and graded materials with some visual defects that are often used to build a cabin, seasonal getaway or a more rustic home.”

If you have building experience and a passion for do-it-yourself projects, a “shell-only” package may save you money, since you’ll mainly be paying for materials. Nevertheless, be aware of deals that sound too good to be true.

“Searching for a deal is where people usually go wrong,” Gordon warns. “There will always be a 50 percent off sale, or a free garage available, but 90 percent of those costs are just baked into the price. The best way to save money is to do your research, have a crystal clear understanding of what you are buying, and make sure to do a line-by-line, apples-to-apples comparison. The materials included in a package can vary significantly from company to company, as can the quality and quantity of those materials. Some of the least expensive packages can produce the most expensive finished homes.”

Also remember that cheaper isn’t always better. “ ‘You get what you pay for’ couldn’t be more applicable than it is to homes and construction,” Graf says. The least expensive products rarely outperform a quality, well-built item, he says, so why would you skimp on what’s likely the largest and most important investment in your lifetime?

Getting your package built

Before you select a package, ask the package provider if it has a list of recommended builders in your area. Ritz-Craft, for instance, sells its products to licensed builders who have applied to become approved, independent re-sellers.

Nonetheless, Zangardi cautions, “Although we maintain close contact with our active distributors, we always advise cabin buyers to do their homework on a local level to be sure that their personal expectations of quality and service can be met by their selected builder.”

Making the right choice

There’s no easy answer when it comes to selecting the package and company that are right for you, but following a few basic guidelines will steer you in the right direction. The best thing you can do is ask questions – lots of them. Find out about the services a company offers, such as design, delivery and technical assistance. Ask for specific details about the products as well as the logistics of delivery. Is on-site assistance available? Are the materials delivered all at once, or as-needed? What type of machinery might be needed?

“Many things can be assumed if the proper questions are not asked,” Graf says. “Spend time researching, and choose the company that best aligns with the goals for your project. What is great for one client might not make sense for another.”

A great resource for consumers is the National Association of Home Builders, nahbclassic.org. Within that site you will find the Building Systems Councils – Modular, Panelized, Log & Timber and more.

If you do your homework, you’re sure to end up with the cabin of your dreams, bundled up into a tidy package that includes all of the features that are most important to you.

So What’s NOT Included?

While companies often label their packages as “all-inclusive,” there are still some items that might not be included in the overall price:

  • Foundation
  • Mechanical systems (electric, plumbing, heating, cooling)
  • Cost of the land
  • Cabinetry
  • Plumbing fixtures
  • Appliances
  • Countertops
  • Hardware
  • Delivery fees
  • Labor
  • Light fixtures
  • Floor covering
  • Masonry
  • Chimneys and fireplaces
  • Gutters
  • Cost to install septic systems

The No-Shop Option

If the thought of comparing cabin packages is less than appealing, you can take a different route altogether: the “No-Shop” option. What exactly does this entail? A few simple steps:

  1. Visit your lender to find out your spending limit.
  2. Choose a home or cabin producer you like.
  3. Show the producer/company your budget and let them show you a floor plan and product that will make the most of your money.

You’ll find that many companies already offer a “No-Shop” option that includes nearly all of the materials you’ll need to create your dream home or cabin.

Stacy Durr Albert is a former magazine editor who has been writing about interior design for the past two decades. She and her family live in one of Long Island’s very few log homes.