Steve Howard, 74, of Berwick has been building log homes in southern Maine and New Hampshire since the 1970s. He said he’s never been quite as busy as during the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

CUMBERLAND — Well into his fourth decade of building log homes in southern Maine, Steve Howard said he’s never been as busy as he is now.

“Normally at this time of year I have one contract for next year,” he said on a recent morning during a break from installing insulation inside a two-story log home under construction not far from the Rines Forest nature preserve. “Right now, I have five.”

Howard, 74, said log home construction has provided him with steady employment since he left a desk job in 1974. There’s a feeling of nostalgia and romanticism about log homes that makes them an attractive retirement or vacation dwelling.

During a pandemic, they also seem like a safe haven.

Howard said he’s noticed an urgency that wasn’t present before concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve always had work,” he said. “Even when the economy was bad, people would be planning, and they’d have their financing in hand, and they’d go ahead with it. But now, there’s the urgency – ‘I want to get out of the city! I want to get back to nature!’ – and a log home just fits with their thinking.”

A true log home is constructed with horizontally stacked logs that interlock at the corners. That differs from a log-sided home, in which a conventional stick-built dwelling is covered in log siding to give the appearance of a log home.

Numbers are hard to come by for the log home industry, so it’s difficult to measure whether Howard’s experience is similar to what’s happening throughout the state. A national survey of log home builders comes out every two years, and was last released in 2019 by the Log and Timber Homes Council.

That organization is one of six subsidiaries of the Building Systems Council, which itself is one of seven subsidiaries of the National Association of Home Builders. Donna Peak, editorial director of Log Home Living magazine, helps compile the survey and said data gathering from 2020 will begin early next year.

“Anecdotally throughout the entire log home industry, we have heard manufacturers say that business is booming,” Peak wrote in an email response to a request for current data. “Certainly as the pandemic rages on, homeowners’ desire for natural surroundings and more rural locales have increased, and historically low interest rates as well as a strong stock market/retirement funds have afforded people the means to make these dreams come true.”

The oldest log home manufacturer in Maine is Ward Cedar Log Homes of Houlton. Bruce Ward founded the company in 1923 after inventing an interlocking milling technique. The American Legion log cabin in Yarmouth is a Ward structure built in 1932.

Ron Silliboy, director of sales and marketing, has been with Ward for 15 years. He said he’s seen a roughly 20 percent increase in sales from 2019 and he expects that will rise 25 to 30 percent next year.

Steve Howard cuts a strip of wood paneling while working on a new log home in Cumberland on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The last big jump in sales came almost a decade ago, after the economic downturn from 2007 to 2009 when the U.S. housing bubble burst. Silliboy said sales of log homes rose 15 percent in 2011.

“I think the pandemic has fueled it quite a bit,” Silliboy said. “People want to get out of congested areas and a log home brings them back to nature.”

An average log home package from Ward runs about $110,000. Ward has a sister company, Northeastern Log Homes, that produces pine log homes out of a facility in Kenduskeag. The ownership group is the same for both companies.

Barry Jones, Northeastern general manager, has been with the company for 40 years. He said the industry has been through a lot of ups and downs during his tenure, and the recession forced some manufacturers to go out of business.

“Things are looking a lot brighter right now,” he said. “Generally, a log home is a little more expensive but it’s not quite so much as it was prior to the COVID, because only the manufactured lumber has gone up in price, not the raw material. So that gives us a little bit of an advantage.”

Barry Ivey has been in the log home business for a quarter century, first with Katahdin and then as a private consultant. Currently, he is the director of operations for Moosehead Cedar Log Homes out of Greenville.

“The log home industry is not a division of housing that the government tracks, so the only (sales information) you’re going to find is anecdotal,” he said. “Nobody monitors it in that fashion.”

Even the biennial national report produced for the Log Home Council, Ivey said, is a compilation of data offered by manufacturers who choose to fill out the survey. There is no mechanism for verifying the numbers.

Ivey declined to give exact figures for Moosehead, but he reported a 50 percent growth from 2019 to 2020. In a normal year, he said the hope is to have 10 or even 20 percent growth.

“And 2021 is looking to start off very strong,” he said. “I can see we’re going to have a good six or seven months to start with.”

Gabe Gordon, vice president of marketing and sales for Katahdin Cedar Log Homes, said his initial fear was that the pandemic would result in operations being shut down for the entire year. In late March, customers from around the country called to put their projects on hold.

After about a month, activity picked up, then gained speed.

“It was obvious it was a real thing by late summer,” he said. “People were saying, ‘Hey, I want to get the hell out of the city.’ And there’s nothing more get-the-hell-out-of-the-city than building a log home in the middle of the woods.”

Gordon, whose grandfather Foster Gordon founded the Oakfield-based company in 1973, described the second half of the year as an onslaught.

“Tons and tons of new potential customers who have purchased land are coming to us,” Gordon said. “We saw a 90 percent jump (in sales) from 2019 to 2020 just in log homes in the state of Maine. And right now, we’re projecting another 100 percent increase over that.”

Katahdin has 50 dealers covering portions of 31 states, so in-state sales represent a fraction of the business. Still, Gordon said the number of log homes sold for construction in Maine rose from 11 last year to 21 this year and he anticipates 42 for 2021.

“It’s next year when the explosion is really going to happen, because all these customers are already lining up,” he said. “They’re in the design queue, they’re in the planning process, they have their land.”

Bob Ham of Turner is one such customer. At 65, he is approaching retirement from a job as transportation manager of a trucking company.

Two years ago, he purchased some land in Eustis with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain. He had plans to build an oversized ranch with a raised roof, but the pandemic gave him and his wife more time to think and plan. In July, they decided to change course and go with a log home, in part because lumber prices rose precipitously, adding roughly $25,000 to the $125,000 they had budgeted for materials.

“I’d always wanted a log home,” Ham said. “I just didn’t realize how inexpensive they really were when you compared apples to apples. The kit home is an inclusive package, so a lot of the stuff you’d be buying at lumber yards or material suppliers are all included in the log home.”

Already Ham has a well and a driveway along with a foundation hole. He plans on doing much of the construction work himself, with help from friends and his son, a framing contractor in Massachusetts. Ham customized one of the Katahdin plans by enclosing a porch for a 32-by-32-foot design that includes a loft and basement garage.

He said he started calling in August to find a local contractor who could pour a foundation but they were all busy, so he was forced to wait until spring.

“I’m hoping to have it watertight within two weeks of continual work on it,” he said. “It’ll probably take until the fall to get it finished.”

Ham said he has two friends who are also planning to build retirement homes, one in Rangeley and another in Eustis. He showed them the log home brochures and construction manual.

“It was an enlightenment for them,” he said. “They were more than intrigued and interested.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.